"Go back and read chapter 14 of my book, your next story should be about nuclear terrorism," George Tenet told us as we finished up a hefty steak dinner at one of his locals in Georgetown. Chapter 14 of Tenet's book is called 'They Want to Change History,' the 'They,' is Al-Qaeda, and what follows is a warning from the former director of the CIA: it's not a question of if terrorists will detonate an atomic bomb somewhere in the United States but merely a question of when. That was a helluva statement coming from the guy who had access to virtually every piece of secret intelligence on the issue. Also a nice way to end dinner, I thought.
I took the shuttle back to New York and called up the usual suspects - Department of Energy types, MIT and Harvard scholars, folks at the IAEA and intelligence sources. Not surprisingly, their opinions on this one issue differed wildly. Some said nuclear terrorism was a very real threat, others said no way but everyone said building and detonating an atomic bomb is easy compared to getting your hands on enough weapons grade uranium to do the job.
Nuclear nations enriched tens of thousands of pounds of weapons grade uranium - how secure was it? Was all that uranium safely under lock and key? Over the years, I had heard about the bad guys trying to sell small amounts of the stuff on the black market - Eastern Europe, Turkey, the Caucasus, these were obvious starting points. Just as I was about to embark on an all-expenses paid trip to the darker side of Tbilisi, I learned of the attack on the Pelindaba nuclear plant in South Africa and the amazing story of Anton Gerber.
Pelindaba is a sprawling facility just outside Pretoria and it houses hundreds of pounds of weapons grade uranium left over from that country's nuclear weapons program - and late last year it was the scene of a coordinated attack by two groups of armed gunmen. The attackers had cut through an electrified fence, slipped by security cameras and made it all the way to the plants Emergency Control Center. That's where they ran into Anton Gerber. Lucky for us, Gerber wasn't in the mood to surrender and took them on barehanded before he was shot through the chest. The bullet pierced his lung and he nearly died on the scene. The gunmen fled, leaving the same way they entered. Gerber was the hero, Gerber saved the day. So here was a story I knew would keep people on the edge of their seats and put the issue of global nuclear security front and center. Perfect.
But getting to Gerber wasn't going to be easy. I couldn't just hop on a plane, go knock on his door and hope that he'd invite me in and tell me his story - those days were over. Not to mention, months had passed since the attack, Gerber wasn't talking and a lawsuit had been filed by him against the facility. My sense was they were hunkered down, in for the long-haul. I'd be crazy to cold-call him, I needed to reach out to his lawyer and pitch him the idea of Anton Gerber telling his story to Scott Pelley, and to millions of Americans. It took weeks before everyone was on the same page but by August I finally had the green light to call him, his attorney, O'lef de Meyer was on-board and had promised me Anton would pick up if I called.
Admittedly, I was a bit nervous dialing his number because this time I didn't have the luxury of sitting down face to face over a drink or dinner to explain who we are and what we do - why 60 Minutes is the gold standard of television news journalism. I wasn't even sure whether he knew what 60 Minutes was. The phone rang 10 times before Anton picked up. I introduced myself and made my pitch then gently turned it over to him and listened as he told me his incredible tale. It came out in one long stream, with twists and turns that pointed to an inside job - great doesn't even begin to describe it. A story like this just doesn't come around that often. I was furiously taking notes, trying to keep up, occasionally interrupting to ask for more detail but for the most part I just listened. The phone cradled between my ear and my shoulder, I remember thinking he probably hasn't talked about the attack for a while. In some weird way this was therapy for him, I was the shrink 8,000 miles away. He was articulate and exact about the details but also very emotional, believable. I could hardly wait to report back to my bosses and get out there. But before I could do that, I had to ask the question.
This is the big enchilada question, the all-or-nothing question. Without Anton Gerber's story there is no story. I have to admit, some of the time you know but with Anton I had no idea. I tried to put myself in his head while I worked up to the question but of course I couldn't even begin to touch his experience. Here's a man who nearly died from a gunshot wound in the middle of the night protecting the plant from God knows who and God knows what - worst case scenario, bad guys getting their hands on weapons grade uranium. I took a deep breath and fired away: Would you be willing to go on the record and tell your story on 60 Minutes?
I held my breath and waited for his answer, "Yes, I can do that."
Written by Michael Karzis