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Too Fast and Furious — Adult Supervision for the USS Cole Investigation

Relations were tense in Yemen between the United States and Yemen after the attack of the Naval vessel U.S.S Cole in 2000 and the situation was not helped by the sudden onslaught of Americans. As Mike Metrinko, who arrived on the scene in March 2001, describes it, there was “a huge clash of cultures” among FBI agents, Marines in “full-attack mode,” and the State Department, which did not want to hurt relations with Yemen and therefore would not let the FBI run its investigation on its own. Those newly arrived U.S. officials did not immediately try to familiarize themselves with Yemeni culture, driving at breakneck speed on sidewalks in crowded cities of Yemen and acting with “an attitude of hostility.” Metrinko and others in the embassy had to provide “adult supervision” for the FBI, which was often riding roughshod over Yemeni authorities, who did not help matters by often being recalcitrant and uncooperative.  

He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in August 1999. You can also read about Metrinko’s experience as an Iran hostage and when he investigated the bombing of an Afghan wedding by the U.S. military.


The Investigation – “A huge clash of cultures”

METRINKO: The U.S.S. Cole was a naval ship that came into the harbor in Aden, Yemen in late 2001 and was attacked by — I’m not going to use the word terrorists, because even the U.S. Navy does not say it was an act of terrorism. It was attacked by people who had explosives in a small boat, which pulled up alongside the Navy ship and blew up. It caused a large number of deaths.

It caused a larger number of injured and the immediate reaction in the United States was panic followed by a huge outpouring of FBI and CIA, but mainly FBI and also U.S. Marines into the city of Aden, which is down on the southern coast of Yemen. They did not know the extent of the original incident and they got there while the boat was still in the harbor and it looked like it might be about to sink. This was in December of the year 2000. I arrived there in March.

What happened in Yemen and specifically in Aden during that investigation was a huge clash of cultures. By that let’s say we had three different cultures. One was the culture of the Yemenis themselves who at first did not want to admit that there had been any Yemeni involvement or that this was a problem. Specifically, the authorities down in Aden who did not want either interference in the capital in Sanaa and certainly did not want a large group of foreigners rushing in trying to do an investigation.

Aden is a very conservative, somewhat laid back city. The second culture was the FBI macho  “We’re here to get this all straightened up right now” culture combined with the U.S. Marines, who rushed in in full force and acted at the very beginning, from what I’ve been told, almost like they were attacking Aden rather than coming to do an investigation. Of course they were coming at a time when nobody knew exactly what had happened and they didn’t know if they were going to be met by violence or an arms struggle. So, when they actually arrived in the airport without permission from anybody, as far as I know, anybody in the Yemeni government, they arrived in full-attack mode.

The third culture was the State Department culture. The State Department culture which recognized that there was a serious problem, of course, but also, did not want to destroy its relationship with the government of Yemen by letting the FBI take full charge of the investigation in that part of the country or the way we dealt with Yemeni officials.

I arrived in March of the year 2001….I had had two predecessors in my job and our job was, as the Ambassador [Barbra Bodine] said, to provide adult supervision to the investigators,… to set up and run an office so that the embassy could have liaison with the whole group down there because the group in Aden was a sort of mish-mash of various investigative authorities.

We had the FBI in large numbers. We had the Marine FAST [Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams], the counter-terrorism people. We had Diplomatic Security. We had NCIS [Naval Criminal Investigative Service], the Naval investigators. We had DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] and we had CIA. So, there was a large amount.

Q: Talk about a can of worms.

METRINKO: A can of armed worms.

The Ambassador had had a bad run in with the FBI well prior to my arrival. In fact, she had thrown the head of the FBI investigators out of the country. There was a personality conflict and again a conflict in cultures. The FBI thought that they could make demands and sort of carry on a very aggressive investigation without paying too much to Yemeni sensibilities or Yemeni law. They were going all out and aggravating people there constantly, aggravating the Yemenis.

On the other hand, the Yemeni authorities were recalcitrant. They weren’t interested very much in providing information because some of the people who were being investigated were being linked to the Yemeni government. This was a difficult situation.

The Ambassador felt that the best way to proceed with the investigation was to keep peace between the investigators and the government…to keep peace between the officials in Aden (at right) with their superiors in Sanaa, with the embassy and with the State Department and with the various offices, the CIA, DIA, NCIS, FBI, Marines, etc. and with the operation as a whole. It was an interesting exercise.

“They were people who should not have been let out of the United States by any agency”     

I was there to help them get their work done in many ways to try and explain local culture or mores to them, also to report to the Ambassador, to make sure that they were reporting not the nitty-gritty of their investigation because we weren’t supposed to know that. I mean their investigation was a secure investigation, but to report the mechanics, the relationships, the way local officials were either being cooperative or non-cooperative. It led a number of cases to the Ambassador going in to the President of Yemen or the Minister of Foreign Affairs or the Minister of the Interior up in Sanaa just to smooth things over or to sort of get the officials in Aden to move more quickly or to move.

Q: Well, I can’t imagine anything worse than putting the CIA, the FBI and the Naval investigators all into the small same town.

METRINKO: Small town nothing, we were in the same [compound] — we lived together, worked together, ate together, exercised together and many of them were locked into the two floors of the hotel that we had rented for our stay there.

Q: How did this work?

METRINKO: With difficulty.

Q: Normally if you’re having an investigation you try to have one entity investigate.

METRINKO: Normally, yes, but this was abnormal…. What I came away with from Aden was what I also came away with, a lesson from Afghanistan and it’s this:  We have several agencies in the United States government. By this I include the Department of Defense, we also had Defense Department Army attaché there, too. We have the Department of Defense; we have investigative agencies or law enforcement agencies, part of the Department of Justice like the FBI. We have the CIA.

We have others, the Marines, etc. who can be and often are very intelligent, very capable people who know their field quite well, but who don’t know a damned thing about other regions of the world. They try to apply their skill and expertise in foreign environments where it simply does not work.

It’s sort of like cooking at a very high altitude. You may know the recipe, but when you go to a very different altitude, all of the temperatures get skewed and you can make a mess of your cooking. That’s what they were often doing.

Q: Did you find yourself in the way of sort of a lecturer on?

METRINKO: A lecturer, but a lecturer to adults and adults don’t like to be lectured at. I also found that many of the people who are sent overseas, including by the Department of State, were culturally and intellectually incapable of conducting a normal life overseas. They were people who should not have been let out of the United States by any agency. They were either stupid or unwilling to look around and realize they were in a foreign environment.

Because of this attitude, it sort of caused a great many problems, which impacted on the efficiency of the investigation.

Too Fast and Too Furious – “Don’t you realize this is stupid?”

One good example. Diplomatic Security went all out to hire a huge number of new people to fill lots of vacancies. Someone taught all these brand new people who were straight out of police forces and straight out of the military and straight out of college the whole concept of defensive, aggressive defensive driving. This is the type of security driving by zigzagging, by having cars going in tandem as opposed to one behind the other.

For example, if two U.S. government cars are approaching an intersection or approaching a circle, one hangs off to the side a little bit, not quite fully behind the first car. If the principle person is in the first car, then the second car is going to be slightly off to the back not too far away and they completely fill up any circle that they’re trying to go around. They do this at high rates of speed. They roar down streets zigzagging back and forth together at very high rates of speed, sometimes with sirens, sometimes not.

Aden was a nice quiet city. This looked stupid, idiotic and incompetent.

They were attracting attention….Did they feel they were targets? Well, somebody had told them — some guru back in DS training — had told them this was the way they were supposed to drive in a high-threat environment. I kept trying to explain that it’s only high threat if someone is actively after you, but they had their orders. It was one of the most ridiculous things I ever saw.

To give you an example of how bad it was, when I say high rates of speed, they would go 50 miles an hour down city streets zigzagging, you know, causing people to jump out of the way, causing other cars to swerve out of the way. We were supposed to be having a dinner once to introduce or to sort of a dinner in honor of the head of security of the city of Aden. He was coming to the hotel and everything was all arranged. Some of our cars had just returned from driving this way in the city.

The security chief came in and he was livid and he said, “My men and I were standing on a street corner trying to cross and your two cars” and he used some other words besides two, “sprayed us with gravel when they swerved around the corner. Don’t you realize this is stupid? This is not the way to drive in a crowded city?”

Our Diplomatic Security people were unfortunately quite often inept. Many of them were very good. Many of them were inept and there was no way to talk to them.

Military Homebodies

Q: When you start bringing in people who don’t understand the culture and all, there’s a tendency to lock oneself into a bunker, to go to the hotel and sit around at night and drink and talk about the “rag heads” or something like that, which makes it even worse.

METRINKO: Which makes it even worse. There is another problem with security. We had Marines for example. I don’t want to talk too much about this because it gets into operations, but we had a FAST team of Marines there who were very bright young guys. I came out of this with a very healthy deep respect for the U.S. Marine Corps, which I’d always had, but this just sort of enforced it.

I think I had 16 or 18 Marines with an Officer in Charge. They never left the hotel. There were two different teams there when I was there. They never left the hotel grounds. I shouldn’t say never. Very, very rarely. With the first of the Marine officers who was in charge, when I realized the Marines weren’t going out at all, now they would go out to the beach. The hotel was on a beach. They would play volleyball. They would go swimming. They would do things like that, that was fine, but they never in general left the hotel environs.

When I told the Marine commander I was going into the city, what about putting Marines into the car occasionally and letting them get out and see what’s out there? He could not understand why that would “help their mission.” I tried explaining that the more they knew about the city the more they more they knew about the culture the more it would help them to defend us in case there was an attack. It would by seeing the culture outside, by seeing the city streets; they would be able to determine more easily whether somebody was friendly or hostile approaching them.

I did occasionally get someone out, but only very occasionally. The Marines sort of SOP [standard operating procedure] is if you’re assigned to a place, you stay there, you do not leave it. I saw this also at the embassy in Kabul later.

“If Joe wanted to go and pick up his laundry, he had four from the SWAT team and two Diplomatic Security people

Q: How about the FBI? Did they get out and around?

METRINKO: Oh, yes, they got out and around. They were actually quite funny about it. The FBI would go out in full force. The FBI had SWAT [Special Weapons and Tactics] teams there. I should say this first. At various times we had between 70 and 80 people there. Seventy to 80, let’s say, 95% men. Too much testosterone.

You have the support staff for the investigators, too. Let me give you an example. The FBI had a rule that no FBI agent was allowed to go out alone. They had to go out with a SWAT team. The SWAT team consisted of four people, including a doctor or a medic with full medical gear. Full medical gear was the size of a suitcase or more. Now, the FBI had to go out fully armed, they carried long arms. So, if Joe was going down to pick up his dry cleaning or to get some cereal at one of the little grocery stores he had to go with a SWAT team of four people.

Now the Diplomatic Security rule was that when the FBI went out there had to be an American driver and an American Diplomatic Security guard in the car because the FBI had their mission, DS had their mission. This meant that if Joe wanted to go and pick up his laundry, he had four from the SWAT team and he had the two Diplomatic Security people. You had Joe plus four plus two that comes out to seven, right?

Well, you also had to have a local along who could speak Arabic, that turned out to eight. At this point you’re doubling the size of your car. Eight guys with long guns do not fit into one car. So, if Joe went out you had to take two cars. This means that you need another Diplomatic Security agent to drive the car because only Americans were supposed to drive plus a companion for him, try ten. You were really sitting in high speeds.

An attitude of hostility

Q: How did they interface with the local people in order to find out what happened?

METRINKO: They interfaced with an attitude of hostility, an attitude that the local authorities were screwing up the investigation. It’s quite possibly true. The local authorities had no great desire to have this drag on, but they had no great desire to bring it to an end either. The local authorities’ answer would have been to take the people they had grabbed and to have them executed after a quick trial. They wanted it over and done with.

The FBI didn’t want a quick trial. They wanted to go on and on, investigating forever, hoping that leads would lead them to other leads, to other leads, to terrorism as a world network. Yemen wanted this to be over and done with. They saw it as a specific problem, a specific incident. They wanted the incident to be wiped out, the perpetrators punished and let’s go on from there. The FBI wanted to find out more that might impact on other investigations and other problems. They were both right in their own ways.

Q: Did you find yourself sort of the oil between the two systems or something? Was that you felt your role?

METRINKO: A bit of that. It was also oil between the various gears inside of the investigator who came as well because we had agencies who not only did not talk to each other, we were all sort of sitting there having to talk to each other.