James Gagliano is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and served as an Airborne Infantry Officer with the US Army Rangers. Following his time in the military, Gagliano had a 25-year career with the FBI as an undercover agent investigating organized crime, and as a member of the FBI’s legendary Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), the Bureau’s elite counterterrorism unit, where, as part of the Global War on Terror, he deployed to Afghanistan three times in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Gagliano would later be assigned as the Senior Leader for the FBI’s New York Field Division SWAT Team. Currently, he serves as an analyst for CNN, where he provides on-air commentary on law enforcement and counter-terror matters and is an adjunct assistant professor and doctoral candidate at St. John’sUniversity.
Gagliano first joined the FBI with the goal of infiltrating the Mafia as an undercover agent after being inspired by the hit 1980s TV series Wiseguy, and soon after graduating from training was assigned to Squad C-16, the unit investigating La Cosa Nostra and John Gotti in particular, where he became the handling agent for Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, Gotti’s notorious underboss, who had struck a deal to testify against the Gambino Crime Family Godfather. While minding Gravano, the two struck up a friendship of sorts and Gagliano got a world-class education in the customs, culture, and inner workings of the American Mafia as the tough as nails underboss held court during their many meals and conversations.
Gagliano would go on to study undercover tradecraft at the Bureau’s Undercover and Sensitive Operations Unit, the secretive department that runs FBI covert training and spend 20 years targeting and taking down an assortment of high profile drug traffickers, mobsters, and crooked cops. Gagliano would later join the FBI’s counter-terror unit, leaning on his previous experience as a U.S. Army Ranger, he spent 4 years as an assaulter on Echo Team and was deployed to Afghanistan to work alongside The Navy SEALS, Delta Force, and Green Berets in their hunting of high-value targets, lending the FBI’s unrivaled interrogation and criminal identification capabilities to the Military’s special operations units and missions.
Beyond helping to dismantle La Cosa Nostra, Gagliano is equally as passionate about keeping the streets of New York safe and free from gang violence. Living just a few miles from Newburgh, the murder capital of NY State, he established the Hudson Valley Safe Streets Task Force, a multi-agency unit that he led in taking down 78 members of the Bloods and the Latin Kings, receiving the “Top Gang Unit” award from the New York Gang Investigator’s Association. Gagliano also works to combat gang culture by intervening before it has a chance to take root, using his role as a basketball coach to mentor and motivate kids at risk of succumbing to the allure of the gang-banger lifestyle.
Lawrence Rosenberg: You joined the FBI with the ambition to work organized crime, what was your inspiration for that?
James Gagliano: “The United States did a lot of proxy wars after World War Two where we supported democracies in the Far East, we supported anybody that was counter to the Soviet Union at that time, so my fear was … that I wasn’t going to see action because it was the height of the Cold War, and I just didn’t see us being involved and engaged. And, I think Robert E. Lee famously said it’s wonderful that war is so bad, lest we grow too fond of it, so I’m not suggesting that everybody wants to go to war, but when you are a soldier and you’re in a professional unit, and you’re with meat-eaters, and folks that are committed to defending freedom and being on the vanguard, you are itching to put your skills to the test. And so I looked at what was going on domestically and thought that there would be other opportunities there, and the reason why as you suggest that I moved towards the organized crime side, I was a cadet in 1985 when John Gotti, who was basically a capo or a captain in the Gambino crime family, one of the five families in New York, had Paul Castellano, who was the boss of the Gambino family, snuffed out in a brazen hit, in the evening hours at Sparks Steakhouse. I was fascinated by that. I read a number of books on it and a book came out right around that time 1986/1987 Written by an FBI agent by the name of Joe Pistone, and Pistone played Donnie Brasco, which was his undercover, nom de guerre, and so I read that book, and I was hooked. And right around the same time in 1987, and now I don’t want a name drop but this guy’s a personal friend of mine because I wrote an article about it. But Ken Wahl, an actor, was portraying Vinnie Terranova on this television series called Wiseguy, and I and I wanted to be that guy. I told Ken recently, and he was blown away., I’m like, dude, I became an FBI agent and wanted to go into organized crime because I watched your TV show and said, what you did, going undercover in the mob was what I wanted to do. And there was a reason for it, my family, they’re Sicilian American immigrants, I’m third generation, but I understand what the mob did, and how the mob took advantage of, and extorted, and used violence and intimidation to take advantage of new immigrants. And I understood what a plague they were, and I thought it’d be really neat to work against that, and so that’s what initially drew me to it.”
Lawrence Rosenberg: You end up joining a group within the FBI called squad C-16 – what was Squad C-16?
James Gagliano: “I arrived in New York in May of 1991, and Gotti had been arrested in December of 1990, but I was still involved in working the case from the perspective of preparing for it, and shortly after I got to squad C-16, which was located in a small resident agency that the Bureau had out in Queens, New York in Rego Park, Queens, was the turning of State’s evidence of one Salvatore “Sammy The Bull” Gravano. And so my first introduction to the mob was my boss calling me in, J. Bruce Mouw, who’s in (the Netflix documentary) Fear City, and saying, “Jimmy, you got nothing going on right now because you’re new kid, you don’t know your ass from a hole in the ground, we’re going to send you to a safe house for a few months and you’re going to live with Sammy The Bull Gravano while we’re working the case, and you’re going to babysit him so that we can do all the behind-the-scenes work.” So it was really an introduction for me on what the mob was and getting inside the mind of a gangster, so it was an unbelievably great experience.”
James Gagliano: “I was 26 years old, and Sammy had just turned 40 … at the time Sammy was a tough guy, and I think one of the things that I learned about criminal enterprise, and look, at the time, this is the early 1990s, the Italian La Cosa Nostra “this thing of ours,” organized crime, was at its apex. And the reason it was at its apex was is because it was sophistication and violence cojoined. It’s one thing to run a violent street gang, you do fear, intimidation, we’ll shoot more of your guys, then you’ll shoot of ours, (like) the Mexican drug cartels (or) the Jamaican drug posses. It’s another thing (that the Italians really had cornered the market on in the 70s 80s and 90s) getting into politicians’ pockets, getting into the labor unions, they had a level of sophistication, didn’t make it any less thuggery, didn’t make it any more palatable or any more righteous, but they were just more sophisticated. So in spending three months with the Bull, it was just for me, a young kid who grew up in the deep south, yes, we shared an ethnic, Italian last name, but it really was a tutorial, spending time with him, we worked out together, we talked, we’d cook together, we did a lot of things together. And, here’s one of the things that I had as a big takeaway: Leadership is a big thing. You go to West Point, it’s the paramount leadership institution, and we often mistakenly believe that leaders are only good people, (but) leaders can be bad. Saddam Hussein was a leader. Hitler was a leader, Sammy The Bull Gravano was a good leader, doesn’t mean good person, but the fact that they had the ability to get other people to do things that they wanted done, there’s leadership there, and Sammy was a leader. He was a likable guy. And look, he had done horrible things. He had 19 murders under his belt. He didn’t kill 19 people, but he participated in luring somebody to a hit or disposing of a body, in our system of justice, you’re still guilty of a homicide, so you’ve been involved in 19 homicides. But when you spend time with somebody that close, you learn a lot about them. And you learn about how people, even on the other side of the law, people that we look at and we eschew, because they are bad people,, how they can still attract a following, and convince people that what they’re doing is being part of something bigger than themselves in their noble or ignoble cause. So that was something I think I learned from being around him.”
Lawrence Rosenberg: So organized crime is not just about La Cosa Nostra, a far bigger issue, and one that you’ve become dedicated to having an impact on is gang crime. As I understand it you headed up a multi-agency, federal gang task force that took down 78 members of the Bloods and the Latin Kings in Newburgh, New York, which, by the way, most people are probably unaware, is the murder capital of New York?
James Gagliano: “When I was posted up to Newburgh, New York, as you pointed out at the time, it was per capita, the murder capital of New York State, the success that we had militarily in Afghanistan, in Iraq with the surge strategy, meaning you put the resources in your area of operation, your area of responsibility, your AOR, you put the resources where they’re needed. Now, the NYPD was way ahead of us, they did that with CompStat, back in the early days of Bratton and Jack Maple, back in the early 90s, under Rudy Giuliani, when they said, hey, why are we covering the entire five boroughs with an equal application of police resources? Here’s where crime is, let’s put more resources there. Let’s pull them from places that aren’t historically challenged by violent crime, and let’s try to attack that. That’s what we did in Newberg. Now, one of the things, and I think it’s more applicable today than it was even back then, was that I was not considered an outsider in Newberg because I had lived close by. I had been in the community for 15 going on 20 years. I coached at the Boys and Girls Club. I knew a lot of the young men, I coached them, even some of the ones that ended up in the gangs because the bottom line, whether it’s the Mafia, whether it’s the Bloods, or Latin Kings, or IBM or the FBI or CNN, we all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. So the young men that saw no outlet in Newburgh, even the ones that you could provide as much guidance to and as much mentorship to, went into the gangs. In 2008, it was a pivotal period of time. There were two street gangs, one that owned the west side of Newburgh and one that on the east side of Newburgh, and they were at war, well People will chalk it up and say, well, it’s a victimless crime, if it’s just two gang bangers shooting each other, but innocent people were also being caught in the crossfire, and so one of the things that we did was, we used that surge strategy. I was able to get resources from the Department of Justice and from the FBI because I lived up here. So people knew that I knew what I was talking about. And I had what I call traction in the community, which meant that people trusted me, I wasn’t an outsider that was coming in to go after and arrest people and pull them away from their families. Hey, that’s coach Jimmy. He’s been here a long time, and he’s trying to take care of the violent crime here. I didn’t do the job all myself, I had a wonderful team, I had a lot of people that were singularly minded and singularly focused to make that happen, but it made a difference and we were committed to the community. We were involved in the community. We weren’t outsiders. We weren’t viewed as, hey, they’re just coming into police and then leave. And then we went hard after the gangs, we used RICO, which was what we used against the mob in the 70s, 80s and 90s. We then started using RICO against violent street gangs. You go after the head of the snake and you cut it off, you take out the captains, you take out the upper echelon guys. And then, what happens then, well criminality is like water. I think Sun Tzu famously said that, it’ll go wherever there’s an opportunity. So if you do take care of this, there are going to be other people that fill the void. And we’ll leave that to the sociologists and folks that can deal with the socio-economic issues, but that’s how we dealt with things in Newberg at that time, and I live 2.5 miles from the epicenter of where all those gang takedowns were, you talked about the 78 (Latin Kings and Bloods), that’s 2.5 miles from my house right now.”
Lawrence Rosenberg: You then move on and become involved with the FBI’s elite counter-terror unit, the hostage rescue team. What is HRT’s mission and what does it do?
James Gagliano: “The mission of the team is, is far-reaching and includes many different things. High-Risk arrests, renditions overseas, and a lot of things that are, you know, that are classified, you can’t talk about those things. But the bottom line is this. The mission has evolved. And when the team was first started, it was, if a group of terrorists wherever they come from, domestic or international, decides to take hostage, like at the 84 Olympics, we’re going to go get them. And we’re going to do it with the efficiency, and the professionalism, and the expertise of the military counterterrorism teams. But the mission has evolved, yes, that’s (still) important, but now you look at things like active shooters, and how do you respond to that, you look at things like renditions overseas, where you grab a terrorist in international waters or overseas, and you’ve got to go get them. During the Global War on Terror, which began in 2001 on 9/11, right (and it’s still ongoing To this day, no matter what we call it), and the FBI Hostage Rescue Team has been deployed, attached to Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) units like the SEALs, and Delta Force and the Green Berets and the Rangers to do law enforcement missions, and people are gonna scratch their head and go, Jimmy, what the hell would a domestic counterterrorism team be doing in Afghanistan, in Iraq? Well, what happens is, when you’ve got high-speed units like the Rangers, and Delta Force, and the SEALs, and the Green Berets, when they’re going into snatch a high-value target, you need people with the experience to work on interrogations, to find out information, to take fingerprints in the field, to take DNA swabs, and you got to remember In 2001/2002, taking DNA in a combat zone was something that was unfathomable, we didn’t have a protocol for that. So you want to attach an FBI agent to those high-speed teams that are going out to do those jobs. You need people that can keep up. You need people with a level of fitness. You need people that have parachuting expertise, fast roping expertise, that can be in austere environments, and are handy with a weapon. So that’s why the FBI’s HRT was then used, I don’t want to say augment, because it was an equal thing, but they were added as embeds, they were embedded with JSOC units during the Global War on Terror, and they still are to this day.”
James Gagliano: https://jamesagagliano.com/
A View from the Counter-Terror Foxhole: https://bit.ly/2R4ZuSv
FBI Agent Helping To “Save” Children of Newburgh: https://bit.ly/2F3yKPU
Becoming Jimmy Falcone: The Perilous Work of an FBI Undercover Agent: https://bit.ly/2R3gGaZ