James A. McGee

Inside Media: FBI Hostage Rescue

June 06, 2009

Guest: James A. McGee

By Lesette R. Heath, special programs coordinator

Contrary to popular belief, the press and law enforcement can work well together. Retired FBI special agent James McGee pointed to The New York Times and The Washington Post’s decision to publish the “Unabomber Manifesto” as the perfect example.

“That was a joint effort between the media and law enforcement, and it led to [Theodore] Kaczynski’s capture,” said McGee, who joined the FBI in 1986 and became one of its most decorated agents.

McGee says that in any crisis situation “you must coordinate what’s happening with the media. You have to do routine press conferences and press releases to keep the media and the public advised.”

This was a lesson learned during the 1993 standoff in Waco, Texas, between Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and the FBI.

Unlike today, the FBI had not developed a thorough plan for responding to a crisis like Waco and the media frenzy that ensued, McGee said. After 51 days, the siege ended in tragedy, when dozens of Koresh’s followers died in a fire set from inside the compound. McGee, a member of the FBI’s elite hostage rescue team, received the Medal of Valor for rescuing one of the few survivors. The FBI, however, received negative publicity for its handling of the situation.

“We couldn’t talk to the media, because we were placed under a gag order, and I don’t think that helped the FBI’s reputation,” he said. “You want to serve your country. You don’t want to be perceived as the bad guy.”

McGee’s new book “Phase Line Green” is his personal account of the 1991 rescue of nine hostages held captive in a federal correctional institute in Talladega, Ala. He signed copies after the program.

McGee’s body armor and Medal of Valor are on display in the Newseum’s “G-Men and Journalists” exhibit.

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