L.A.'s Cool, Dapper Terror Expert

Times Staff Writers

With Los Angeles caught up in an extraordinary security alert, the city is relying on a former journalist who favors $1,500 Italian suits and may be the only police official in America who has ever sat down with Osama bin Laden.

John Miller, 45, took a $1-million pay cut and arrived here in January, charged by his old friend Police Chief William J. Bratton with heading up counterterrorism efforts for the department.

Because he has no formal law enforcement training and carries a reputation as a man about town in New York, many questioned whether the former anchor for the television newsmagazine “20/20" had the qualifications for the job. Miller’s counterpart at the New York Police Department is a former CIA official.

On Friday, as the French government canceled Air France flights into LAX because of concerns of a holiday terrorist attack, Miller’s cellular phone chirped almost constantly in his office at Parker Center in downtown Los Angeles.


He appeared unruffled. His pistol was strapped firmly to his ankle. His Blackberry telephone was affixed to his hip. His gray suit -- complete with a tie and matching handkerchief -- was perfectly pressed.

Much of what Miller does, he said, he cannot talk about. But in an interview, he said his office became aware of the threat against Los Angeles days before Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the country’s alert level to orange.

“We started on this a couple of weeks ago, very quietly,” Miller said.

Over the last few weeks, the 200 officers who work for him in the Critical Incident Management Bureau increased surveillance on a list of Los Angeles residents who are suspected of having some kind of connection to terrorist groups.

“Tens of thousands of people have been through the camps in Afghanistan,” Miller said. “Some of them have turned up here.”

The key lesson law enforcement learned from Sept. 11, he said, is that leads that seem small may not be, and that little things that fall through the cracks can have disastrous implications.

So Miller said he has urged his officers to pick up anyone with suspected ties to terrorism who could be arrested on other charges.

“When anything comes up like this, we have to make sure we have crossed all the Ts and dotted all the I’s,” he said.

LAPD officials also began scrutinizing their lists for anyone who might be licensed to fly a plane, or has the ability to acquire hazardous materials or forge a passport. On Tuesday a suspected forger, identified months ago, was arrested.

“A guy who sells a forged passport may know who they sold it to,” Miller said. He declined to provide further details, but said the man had no connection to the potential threat at LAX.

Several officials contacted Wednesday praised Miller’s performance to date.

“Frankly, I was never skeptical,” said Ron Iden, who heads the Los Angeles office of the FBI. “I saw John and see John as a very bright guy. He’s a real student of terrorism, particularly international terrorism. He brings a global perspective that adds a lot of value to the picture. He is a very focused guy, very focused on getting the job done.”

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn said he is pleased with Miller’s performance.

Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, who has consistently questioned whether Los Angeles is prepared for the threat of terrorism, said that he first questioned the choice of Miller. But Weiss said any doubts have long since been put to rest.

Even before Miller arrived, Weiss said, the councilman called him at his job at ABC and found him “well briefed on the challenges we face here.” Weiss was especially struck by Miller’s cool head.

Bratton acknowledged that to many, Miller’s hiring seemed out of context. But he said Tuesday that his trusted confidant, who also worked with him in the 1990s at the NYPD, has exceeded his expectations.

“He’s exactly the right guy at the right place at the right time,” Bratton said, adding that Miller has top-notch organizational skills, a tireless work ethic and a Rolodex full of national and international contacts unusual for a police official.

He now oversees all events that require massive police response, such as the Academy Awards, the recent wildfires, the Fairfax district plane crash. Miller turns up at hundreds of crimes scenes, many of them in the middle of the night.

Bratton called Miller his eyes and ears and an asset because he thinks outside the box.

Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell said it was Miller’s idea to bring a mobile bioterrorism laboratory to the Kodak Theatre during last spring’s Oscars to test the air for possible pathogens. (None were found.) And as crowds of antiwar protesters surged toward the streets surrounding the theater, Miller stood behind the lines of officers in riot helmets, giving direction in his designer suit.

Even some whose feathers were ruffled by the ease with which the civilian strapped on a badge and a gun and sped through town in his unmarked police car have been won over.

“There’s a lot we can learn from a man like John,” said Bob Baker, president of the Los Angeles police union, who applauded what he called Miller’s work ethic and open-minded attitude.

Miller said he was surprised at how many questioned whether he could handle the job. After all, he said, he has 10 years experience delving into all aspects of terrorism, traveling the world to interview terrorists and counterterrorism experts. That gives him, he said Tuesday, more experience in terrorism-related matters than a veteran police captain with a background in theft or traffic or gangs.

The son of a reporter, Miller grew up in the New York area and often visited crime scenes with his father. In his teenage years, he carried a scanner.

In later years as a reporter for ABC, he focused on the coverage of terrorism and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In 1998, he walked into a hut in Afghanistan and interviewed Bin Laden.

Some criticized him for the interview because he submitted his questions in advance, and agreed to allow Bin Laden to answer them in Arabic without providing Miller with simultaneous translation.

But Miller remains one of the few U.S. journalists to interview the Al Qaeda leader.

While in New York, Miller was known as something of a man about town, and made People magazine’s list of the country’s 50 most eligible bachelors last year.

But shortly after that, Miller married (Barbara Walters announced it on the air) and in April, he and his wife had a daughter.

“I’ve never had a job I didn’t love,” Miller said. “I just love this one a little more.”