On the Trail of Killers
09/22/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
EVERY DAY AT WORK, STATE Department special agent Brad Smith stares into the eyes of two Libyans wanted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and vows to bring them to justice. Their faces are only on the poster hanging over his desk, but given Smith's track record, this is no idle threat.
Two years ago, Smith helped run to ground a prime suspect in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. This June his work ferreted out a Pakistani charged with gunning down two CIA employees outside the agency's Langley, Va., headquarters four years ago. These would be impressive feats for any agent, but Smith, 44, is no ordinary operative. Barely able to lift his hand to a computer keyboard, he labors just to draw oxygen from a breathing tube. His base of operations is the converted den of his home in suburban Virginia; his command post, a wheelchair. Not only is the dedicated federal agent battling some of the world's most notorious terrorists, he's also fighting terminal amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Says his friend and former colleague Larry Johnson: "In the face of enormous physical pain, he's using his time to benefit others."
A former Air Force pilot and intelligence operative, Smith masterminds the State Department's Counter-Terrorism Rewards Program, which over the past 10 years has snared some two dozen terrorists worldwide through the payment of rewards up to $4 million.
Smith has carried his fight to the Internet, where his Web site (www.heroes.net), seen in 12 languages, was accessed over a million times last year in 102 countries. It now draws 1,000 e-mail messages a month. "Anyone on the planet can get in touch with us," says Smith, surveying his $50,000 worth of government-supplied computer equipment, "and we can go anywhere in the world."
This high-tech cat-and-mouse game seems fitting for a man who, as a schoolboy in Novi, Mich., once built a laser as a science project. A 1977 Berkeley biology grad, Smith later joined the Air Force and in 1980 got his start in intelligence, when he was asked to join the force's Office of Special Investigations. In 1986, after a yearlong stint in Istanbul, he was recruited by the State Department and detailed to various covert operations that even now remain classified.
Smith got the idea for using the Web to fight terrorism after seeing an Internet display at a 1993 trade show that he was visiting with his wife, Jeanie, 52. "I said, 'Hmm, does this go to Libya?' " he recalls. "Then I started checking and found that the Iranians are really into the Net." Smith made a pitch to his bosses and forged a program that today, says State Department coworker Mike Parks, is "an integral tool in the government's efforts to stop terrorism. It saves lives."
Not that Smith is averse to low-tech methodology. Four years ago he came up with the idea of putting photographs of wanted terrorists on matchbook covers in Middle Eastern countries. Though the idea was nearly vetoed by his superiors, who called it too unconventional, it eventually helped lead to an arrest in the World Trade Center bombing. Smith has also taped antiterrorism public service announcements with celebrities including Charlton Heston, who calls him "an extraordinary American."
Whatever the tactics, Smith is clear about his motivation. "I hate to think of those two guys indicted in the Pan Am 103 bombing living in peace in Libya after they killed 270 people," he says. But revenge isn't really his aim. "My highest priority is prevention," he explains, recalling the work during the Gulf War that uncovered a pair of Iraqi intelligence officers in East Asia who were planning airline ticket-counter attacks designed to kill as many civilians as possible. "Those two guys were picked up driving around with machine guns and explosives."
Smith's accomplishments are all the more impressive given the ravages of his disease. He was first diagnosed in 1991 after a vacation in the Bahamas, when, his wife says, "Brad started tripping a lot, and we figured something was going on." His condition deteriorated, and in 1993 he broke his leg twice. "Up to that point, I could do everything seminormally," he says. "After the second break I was never able to walk again." A former 10-mile-a-day runner who stood 6'3" and weighed nearly 200 lbs., Smith tapped both his biology background and computer expertise to locate an experimental drug that might slow the disease's progress—but so far the manufacturer, Guilford Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Baltimore, has denied his request to try it, since it has not yet been approved for human clinical trials.
Even with his declining health, Smith wheels into his office seven days a week at 9 a.m., staying until Jeanie threatens to shut off the computer at 10 p.m. His dedication is an inspiration to those he has helped. "Brad Smith is a beacon of light for me," says Robin Higgins, 47, whose husband, Rich, a Marine colonel, was taken hostage in Beirut in 1988 and murdered the following year. "Sometimes when I feel that no one in this government really cares anymore, I know there is at least one guy who is doing everything he can to keep this case, and others, alive."
That is a sentiment Smith fully appreciates. "When they find me someday," he says, "I just hope that it's facedown over my computer."
LINDA KRAMER in Washington