Former Texas High student discusses relation to terrorist plot
September 15, 2016
What were those three men who sauntered into a Kinko’s on a muggy Florida day three weeks before 9/11 thinking?
Were they nervous? Apprehensive, in any way?
Did they perhaps think of the people whose lives would be forever affected by what they were about to do? Did they think of their mothers, of innocence, of the kindness of complete strangers?
Or did they think of their ability to change the course of a country simply by walking outside, breathing in the hot air, and throwing away the CD’s they held in their hands?
Inconspicuous. That was Kinko’s. It gave off the impression of being a mom-and-pop, corner of the street copy shop. And when Texas High School alumnus Gary Kusin–the CEO of Kinko’s from August 2001 to January 2006–took the helm, it was floundering.
“At the time, there were 1,200 locations in the U.S., Korea, Japan, Australia, England and the Netherlands,” Kusin said. “And it was a struggling company. In fact, my charge when I got there was to take six months to figure out whether it could even be saved or not.”
In order to determine if Kinko’s was to stay afloat, Kusin decided his best course of action was to travel all over the United States and personally visit those on the front lines- the sales representatives and the day-to-day workers.
“I spent six weeks in every one of 43 regions of the U.S., holding town hall meetings and asking people what was wrong with Kinko’s,” Kusin said. “And so I had a very good idea of what I wanted to do, and called a meeting of all senior officers in Kinko’s in Denver, Colorado on Sept. 11. That was going to be the first time I’d actually met a bunch of them, it would be the first time I’d tell them: here’s what I’ve learned in my travels and here’s what we’re going to be doing differently in order to become successful.”
And that’s what he was doing when the news came to him, over a phone call with his son.
“I thought ‘Gee, I can’t believe that happened’, but I didn’t think much about it,” Kusin said. “And within 15 minutes, there was a gasp in the restaurant and someone yelled out ‘Oh my God, another building has been hit by a plane!’ and at that moment, I knew that there was a problem.”
At that moment, Kusin couldn’t have known about the phone call he was to receive an hour later- one that would mobilize his company and give them a purpose they never dreamed of.
“Around 10 a.m. that morning, our head of Human Resources at Kinko’s came in and said, ‘We have a store manager in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who needs to speak to you urgently’,” Kusin said. “‘He won’t speak to anyone else, he won’t tell me what it’s about but he said that you need to speak with him.’”
Kusin was familiar with the name of the store manager, whom he had visited a few weeks prior on one of his stops at Kinko’s locations across the country. The manager recounted an incident that had happened around three weeks before.
“He said, ‘It was about the time that you were here, I was working the late shift, it was about 10 p.m., and three guys came in- clearly Middle Eastern guys’,” Kusin said. And they wanted to make a copy of a CD. Our CD burner in the store was broken, and I told them I was sorry but it was broken, but it occurred to me that I could burn their CD on my computer at my house, and so I did. I said, ‘Would you like me to do that?’ and they said, ‘That would be great’. And so I said they could pick it up the next morning.”
The store manager went home and burned the CDs. What he found struck him as slightly odd, but he brushed it off.
The contents? Complete schematics for American Airline 757 planes including seat assignments and wiring of the planes, among other things.
“He said, ‘I thought maybe they worked for American Airlines. I didn’t know, didn’t think about it. The next morning I gave them their copies and they were on their way, and now today I see 757 American Airlines planes flying into the Pentagon and World Trade Center and I’m really worried there’s a connection.’”
At this point, Kusin grasped the full implications of what the store manager had told him. Turning, he saw his Human Resources head, who had overheard the conversation and offered up an important authority figure to talk to: his cousin George Tenet, who so happened to be the director of the C.I.A.
“I said, ‘You need to call him right now and tell him what I just told you,’” Kusin said. “He said OK and sure enough, 10 minutes later we had George Tenet, head of the CIA, on the phone. I told him everything I had just told [his cousin] and he said, ‘Where is that Kinko’s location? You call him and tell him to stay there. I will get FBI people over there immediately and we can take him to his house so we can look at his computer.’ So within minutes, the FBI were in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, took him to his home, and took his computer.”
From there, events unfolded rapidly. In less than 3 hours, the C.I.A. had contacted Kusin again to ask about security footage in the stores. The average Kinko’s has about a dozen video cameras that run for 30 days straight, meaning this particular one in Florida had a month’s worth of footage. FBI agents then sat in the store combing over footage, eventually finding the suspects and noting their use of rental computers.
“So the FBI said ‘We need to know if your computers interconnected and the fact is, they are- we had 12,000 computers across our network and they all were wired into our network operation center out in Ventura, California,” Kusin said. “So Tenet asked ‘Can we figure out what websites they were visiting?’ and I said ‘Yeah, actually, we can.’”
Agents were able to tap into the specific computers used by these men, and see what websites they had been looking at. From there, they immediately asked if there were any other rental computers in the network that had been hitting those same websites. In fact, there were, in Minneapolis and Boston.
“We ended up going through the video footage over and over all the next day- it is the video footage from Kinko’s that showed the faces of all the hijackers,” Kusin said. “Every single one. All of them bought their tickets from the computers at Kinko’s. Every one of them was on footage from the Kinko’s stores.”
Over the next two months, there were as many as 50 FBI agents working undercover at Kinko’s stores, monitoring activity. Agents also worked in the network operations center, because they now knew exactly what websites the hijackers’ cohorts were going to, and every time anyone from any Kinko’s location accessed those websites and the activity on them- anywhere from purchasing airline tickets to receiving wired money- agents were flagged. As an aside, Kusin says, the FBI caught four of their most wanted people over the next five years simply through using that same network, and monitoring illegal Internet activity. But their greatest contribution? Directly assisting government efforts during those first few frenzied weeks after 9/11.
“So we had incredible access,” Kusin said, “And as a result of that, as long as we were fully enmeshed with the FBI and all that, we set up a free-standing copy center at Ground Zero in a park, in order to help the FBI make copies of floor plans of the buildings that were damaged, as well as other things. We staffed it with equipment, with people, with everything.”
Kusin’s focus for the next few weeks, then, was to maximize Kinko’s ability to aid government officials in any way possible.
“It’s one of those things where you slow down and get really serious really quickly,” Kusin said. “What can I do to help, how can I be the most helpful I can possibly be and throw the most resources at this? OK, we can build an entire copy store on Ground Zero.”
It’s a significant role to play, especially in a time when chaos reigned and seemingly paltry details like copy machines tended to get overlooked. But Kusin downplays Kinko’s role, describing them simply as a ‘cog in the wheel’.
“We bought the government time,” Kusin said. “We were told that it was incredible that we were able to have all that information and help the entire investigation leapfrog dramatically so that they knew how it happened in hours. But if you think of everything that was going on- they had buildings falling down, people dead and missing- we were in the background.”
For all the countless articles, documentaries, conspiracy theories and everything else centered on 9/11, Kusin’s story remains largely unknown- another tiny piece of the tapestry woven around that day and its aftermath.
“For a long time we were told not to discuss it,” Kusin said. “Then it came out in the 9/11 official report. Somewhere deep in there it says Kinko’s did this and that. After the 9/11 report came out was when I felt comfortable talking about it and people go ‘Are you kidding me?’”
It was a surreal experience, made all the more so by the very nature of Kinko’s, far removed from undercover operatives and matters of life-and-death.
“It’s one thing if you worked for the government and you’re signing up for these things, but I worked for Kinko’s,” Kusin said. “I wasn’t expecting to deal with global terrorism. But we were in an interesting position to actually be able to be truly helpful. We didn’t do anything differently than anyone else would have done if they’d discovered they were sitting on a trove of information the government needed. Though this was a small part, a part we didn’t ask for, the ability to be helpful was huge. It made us all proud.”