The Furious Hunt for the MAGA Bomber

Weird things happen in and around New York City nearly every day, so the appearance of a suspicious package at George Soros' residence in Westchester County didn't initially raise many eyebrows at the FBI 's hulking New York field office.Late on the evening of Monday, October 22, 2018, the office received an alert known as a “nine-liner”—a brief update on an unfolding situation that, in the classic muddle of government communications, is actually 11 lines long. As a routine precautionary response, a team of bomb techs headed to Katonah, New York, to examine the yellow padded envelope. Given the rarity of mail bombs—the US Postal Service encounters about 16 a year, amid plenty of hoaxes—the technicians had good reason to expect it was a false alarm.

This feature appears in the September 2020 issue. Subscribe to WIRED . Photograph: Jessica Pettway
But they quickly sent an update when they arrived on the scene: “Boss, we found some energetic material,” an agent on the ground reported by phone to William Sweeney, the FBI assistant director in charge of the New York office. “We have a viable device.”Sweeney, a 20-year veteran of the bureau, had spent the bulk of his career in the tri-state area and now oversaw the agency's largest, most powerful, and most politically fraught office, comprising more than 2,000 agents, analysts, surveillance specialists, and other personnel, who handled everything from Italian mobsters to Russian spies at the UN. His friendly neighborhood-dad persona belied his role as one of the FBI's most important feudal lords, and he was no stranger to terrorism cases. A year earlier, when a would-be suicide bomber had targeted the Port Authority bus terminal in 2017, the suspect's body was still smoking from his incompletely detonated pipe bomb when Sweeney arrived on the scene. Now, Sweeney knew that the follow-up call from the agents in Katonah would change the night's rhythm dramatically. An actual working bomb? “That starts the machine,” Sweeney says.
Multiple FBI teams were dispatched, including the office's terrorism unit. One investigator's initial theory was that this was an inside job: The package had appeared in a mailbox at the Soros residence that was surveilled by a faulty security camera, which meant there was no record of how it got there. How would anyone but Soros' house staff know that the camera guarding the mailbox was inoperative?But the next day, the Secret Service discovered a similar package at the nearby residence of Hillary Clinton, addressed to the 2016 presidential candidate. And with that, the “174 case,” FBI code for a bombing investigation, morphed into a “266 case”: an investigation into domestic terrorism.
By Wednesday at 8 am, news of the bomb at the Soros residence made the morning show at CNN; commentator John Avlon ran a segment about how Soros had long been a target of conservative and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Then, as CNN anchors Jim Sciutto and Poppy Harlow were anchoring their 9 am show, the alert came that a suspicious device had appeared in CNN's own mail room. (It was intended for former CIA director and TV commentator John Brennan, who was actually a regular fixture on CNN's competitor, MSNBC.)
As the NYPD-FBI bomb squad rushed to the scene, authorities decided to lock down much of Columbus Circle, evacuating the 55-floor Time Warner Center and closing a subway station. Tens of thousands of workers poured out of their offices and shops. Sciutto and Harlow evacuated their studio but continued to report on the unfolding situation from the street, via Skype and cell phones, along with their colleagues. Bomb technicians loaded the device into one of the NYPD's three “total containment vessels”—a specially configured truck with a round, reinforced storage unit able to absorb a bomb's blast—and a six-vehicle convoy of police and fire vehicles hustled the bomb to an NYPD firing range in the Bronx. From the scene, Sweeney called one of his deputies: “Set up the JOC.” It was time to open the crisis command center, the Joint Operations Center, in Chelsea. The country had a serial bomber on its hands.