Stan Honda  /  AP file
Firefighters make their way over the ruins of New York's World Trade Center as clouds of smoke continue to rise over Ground Zero one month after the 9-11 attack.
By
NBC News
updated 2/25/2004 7:33:49 PM ET 2004-02-26T00:33:49

After 9/11, 400 FBI agents from around the country were dispatched to New York to look for evidence in the ruins of the World Trade Center. But now a federal investigation reveals that, while they sifted through piles of rubble, many of those same FBI agents removed items to use as souvenirs or gifts for bosses, friends and colleagues.

NBC News Senior Investigative Correspondent Lisa Myers has learned that at least 13 FBI agents took items including American flags that once flew over the World Trade Center, marble chunks of buildings from the towers, patches from World Trade Center security-guard uniforms, signs and keys marked “World Trade Center,” a glass Tiffany globe that originally cost $350 and somehow survived the collapse.

The items, and the agents’ behavior, are outlined in a scathing report issued in December by the Justice Department's Inspector General. Sources familiar with the Inspector General’s investigation provided details of the still-confidential report to the NBC News Investigative Unit. The report recommends disciplinary action for two agents who allegedly took items from the World Trade Center ruins, and chastises the FBI for having “no written policy governing what could be taken from recovery sites or mass crime scenes.”

The FBI agents who searched for evidence at Ground Zero, and at the Fresh Kills landfill where the rubble from the towers was sifted, claim that the items are harmless mementos. The agents say the items are merely physical reminders of that terrible September day, and the hard work the FBI’s elite Evidence Response Team agents did in sorting through the tons of debris.

But to some of the families who lost relatives on 9/11, the World Trade Center is a sacred site, and there is no such thing as a harmless memento.

“A memento from a mass grave of 3,000 people,” says Monica Gabriel, whose husband, Richard, died on 9/11.  "To think of taking something from that site is not only ghoulish, it’s despicable. Nothing should be taken.”

Among those singled out for criticism by the Inspector General is FBI Special Agent Richard Marx, who managed the recovery operation at the Fresh Kills landfill. The inspector general claims that Marx initially told federal investigators he was unaware of anyone from the FBI taking items. Subsequently, the inspector general says it learned that Marx had given an American flag and marble from the World Trade Center to a retired New York FBI Assistant Director in Charge, as a souvenir. When the inspector general re-interviewed Marx, according to the investigation, “he had no recollection of giving any items to FBI employees.”

Marx, who works out of the FBI’s Philadelphia Field Office, was asked to take a polygraph examination. The inspector general states that, during the exam, Marx “was determined to be deceptive when he claimed he did not recall giving the items” to the retired FBI official. The inspector general concluded: “We believe that [Marx’s] lack of candor constituted misconduct that warrants discipline.”

In a telephone interview with NBC News today, Marx disputed the inspector general’s claims. He says he does not recall ever giving any items to the retired FBI official, and adds that he was candid throughout the inspector general investigation. Marx’s lawyer challenged the accuracy of the polygraph exam, and Marx’s supervisor and colleagues came to his defense. They say that Marx is an excellent agent who worked tirelessly at the Fresh Kills site, and point out that Marx has not yet had a chance to read the inspector general report or to defend himself against its allegations.

The FBI is still reviewing the report, and has not yet decided whether to discipline Marx or any of the agents mentioned by the inspector general.  To date, only one FBI agent has been punished for allegedly taking items from Ground Zero. That agent, who works in Oklahoma, allegedly took 70-80 pounds of Ground Zero mementos, including debris, smashed rivets, outlets covers, and patches that say “World Trade Center” security. The FBI suspended him for 10 days. He’s still on the job today but, through a spokesman, would not comment to NBC.

Critics point out that private citizens who took items from Ground Zero were criminally prosecuted.  Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) wants to know why the double standard? "Somehow, because you're an FBI agent,” Grassley asks, “stealing from a graveyard is different than a private citizen stealing from a graveyard?"

The FBI now says there was no clear policy against taking souvenirs, and admits that for years agents have taken mementos from other major crime scenes including the Oklahoma City bombing and the United States Embassy bombings in Africa. The FBI says that, because its own internal guidelines were so vague, no agents deserve to be criminally charged today.  “The items were never taken from the evidentiary piles [at Fresh Kills], or those piles which were determined to have a personal value,” says FBI Assistant Director Cassandra Chandler.

Chandler adds that the 400 FBI Agents who sifted evidence for weeks simply wanted keepsakes, and never meant to cause any additional pain for the 9/11 survivors.  "We regret if their sensitivities have been hurt in any way because of what could have been removed from the site by the agents.  That is a concern to us," Chandler says. The agents, she adds, “thought they were doing the right thing. They wanted to take a piece of something to remember them by. And if they offended those 9/11 family members, it hurts us.”

The FBI Special Agent who triggered the investigation, Jane Turner, is retired, accused of "tarnishing" the FBI by alleging theft by her colleagues.

The inspector general report seems to confirm her charge that the Tiffany globe was taken from Ground Zero by an FBI agent in Minneapolis. The inspector general says the agent’s "misconduct warrants discipline." He's still on the job and won't comment to NBC.

"I think it's amazing that the thief is still in the FBI and the good and honorable agent who gave many productive years was forced out," Turner says.

The FBI claims Turner was not dismissed for blowing the whistle, but had been a problem employee for years.

However, today, thanks in part to Jane Turner, the FBI has a new policy: agents will no longer be allowed to take anything from a crime scene.

Chandler, the FBI official, says the new policy is sweeping.  “It says you cannot remove any mementos from a site,” says Chandler, “You cannot take photographs at a site It doesn't leave [agents] that discretion anymore. There will be no more mementos taken from these types of investigative sites."

Lisa Myers is NBC News' Senior Investigative Correspondent.
Jim Popkin is Senior Producer of NBC's Investigative Unit.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

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