Former FBI agent speaks to Lopes on leadership
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
John Iannarelli spent the first year of his career in the FBI doing nothing but focusing on one case: the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
He was stationed in Detroit, near the Flint, Mich., area, where the bombers, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, had a farm. He spent a lot of his time investigating their planning of the bombing, which killed 168 people — including 19 children — and injured hundreds more.
“Of the 10,000 agents in the bureau, 1,400 did nothing but work this case for almost three years,” said Iannarelli, who spoke to Grand Canyon University students on Wednesday as part of the Provost Speaker Series. “There was an incredible amount of information we had to collect. We took 28,000 photographs of evidence. We conducted 43,000 interviews. … We searched 1 billion records from 26 different databases. All of this had to be categorized and collected and working together.
“The reality is, it was a massive case. It took three years. We were able to convict two people.”
It was just one of the stories told by Iannarelli, who served as the FBI’s National Spokesperson, was an FBI SWAT team member, was in charge of the FBI’s Phoenix Division and investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack and the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in addition to the Oklahoma City bombing.
He detailed several of the cases he worked on and, from them, illustrated for students what it takes to be a good leader.
Iannarelli said how catching Timothy McVeigh involved a bit of serendipity. “A wise, smart cop had pulled this guy over,” he said.
It also took a lot of ingenuity.
Investigators took the VIN number off the axle of the truck rented for the bombing and were able to trace it back to the truck manufacturer, to the rental agency that bought the truck and eventually to the person who rented it, which matched the name of the man the police officer pulled over and arrested on the freeway.
“So within two days, we were able to arrest the bomber,” said Iannarelli. “How did we do it? It’s teamwork, and that’s a very important lesson for leadership. You need the people you work with. We had 1,400 agents, many of whom I never met but would send me leads of things they needed and counted on me to do my job as I counted on them to do their job.”
He spoke about a case in which a 4-year-old girl was kidnapped from the front of her home, where she was playing.
Iannarelli, who said the FBI never closes a case unless it’s been solved, was assigned the case nine years later.
He decided to contact a popular show at the time, “America’s Most Wanted,” and use new technology that aged her picture based on the genetics of her parents. The FBI followed one promising lead, found the kidnapped girl and arrested the person who did it.
The case showed how hard work and persistence are part of leadership, Iannarelli said.
In the 2011 shooting of Giffords in Tucson, six people were killed and 13 wounded. He stayed in Tucson with just the clothes on his back for 11 days, even waiting in an operating room to collect bullets from one of the victims during surgery to remove them.
“Here I am, the boss. I should be sitting down and directing people (not waiting in an operating room),” he said, but another quality of leadership is to lead by example. “We were tasking agents with a lot of things. … But I wasn’t asking anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.”
He also spoke about how the Sept. 11 terrorist attack was a pivotal point for the FBI.
“When I joined the FBI, I joined to catch bad guys. I joined to investigate bank robberies, kidnappings,” he said. “But the FBI changed as a result of 9/11. We are now an intelligence-gathering organization. We still arrest people, but we are all about getting intelligence and trying to predict these things. It does no good to investigate 9/11 when 3,000 people died. What we want to do is stop 9/11 from happening.”
In 2018 alone, Iannarelli said, the FBI was able to prevent 17 events of potential terrorism through intelligence gathering. He believes leaders have to impart the importance of change in the FBI.
“We join to be cops, we join to be guys with guns and go out and arrest people, and now you’re telling me halfway through my career I’m going to be doing a totally different job? … Not everybody liked that, but we all understood it,” he said.
An audience member asked about terrorism and what kind of red flags the FBI looks for.
One of the indicators, he said, is when someone does a test run of a crime. In one case, someone had walked the path he was considering for a crime, checking trash bins, for several days in a row.
“People saw him doing that, which is how we became aware of it,” Iannarelli said.
Another indicator is when someone stockpiles supplies, such as before the shooting in Las Vegas. It’s not always as obvious as someone buying 5,000 rounds of ammunition in three months: He said the FBI is on the lookout for anyone buying large quantities of any supply, “even from beauty-supply stores … believe it or not, the FBI has gone out to every beauty-supply company in the country.”
The FBI cues into social media, too. “Now we’re actually creating apps where you could just forward the information to the FBI or local law enforcement,” he said.
Technology Professor Jevon Jackson asked Iannarelli how the face of crime is changing in the light of technology.
“You know, everything is changing so much, so I don’t know why anybody’s going to rob a bank or grocery store again when you can sit in the comfort of your home behind a computer screen and steal way more money than you can at gunpoint,” Iannarelli said. “… I’ve seen more and more cyber-related crimes, but I’m also seeing more and more cybertechnology used to solve crime.”
He mentioned a case where the FBI was able to analyze the jeans a robber was wearing and, through computer technology, pinpoint 21 distinct patterns in the jeans. … We seized the pair of jeans, and the lab results showed they matched perfectly to the jeans being worn by the bank robber.”
Another audience member asked about privacy issues, such as the 2016 case in which Apple refused the FBI demand to mine data from an iPhone used by one of the shooters in the December 2015 terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Calif. The FBI eventually paid a fee – figures vary in news reports, but $1.3 million of tax money is commonly reported – to a company in the private sector.
“Privacy advocates say we should not have the government looking at us, and the FBI would say we need it to do our job. I always defer to the privacy side because I believe that’s the greater good,” Iannarelli said, though he added, “We would like to see there be some sort of back door so that when we have a lawful warrant, we can go to the company and say, hey, here’s the warrant. … In this area of technology, where everybody, including terrorists, is using technology, we have to have a way to compete with them.”
The FBI now doesn’t have a way to compete with those terrorists, he said, “other than hiring really smart people in the private sector.”
Sophomore Keith Martinez, an IT major with an emphasis in cybersecurity, is considering becoming one of those smart people the FBI hires.
“My mom actually is in law enforcement,” he said.
Iannarelli said the FBI looks for people with degrees in anything: “We’ll teach you everything you need to know. We look for interesting people with all sorts of degrees.”
And the department wants to hire more women.
Sophomore Haidon Storro spoke with Iannarelli after the talk about a job with the FBI. She said, with a gleam in her eye, “I like the idea of giving back to your country.”
Contact GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 602-639-7901.