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Alabama hostage rescue: why some secrets will remain in the bunker

The rescue Monday of a 5-year-old Alabama boy from an underground bunker involved lots of secrecy on the part of law enforcement. Not all questions are likely to be answered as to how federal authorities extracted him.

By Staff Writer / February 5, 2013

A sign and wreathes honoring murdered bus driver Charles Poland, Jr. hang on a fence surrounding Midland City Elementary School near Midland City, Alabama, Tuesday.

Phil Sears/Reuters

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Atlanta

Before he died in a hostage rescue attempt in a bunker in Alabama, Jimmy Lee Dykes kept a TV on as his captive, a 5-year-old named Ethan, played with a red Hot Wheels car nearby.

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As negotiations began to break down over the course of the six-day ordeal, law enforcement authorities pushed reporters away from the scene and said precious little publicly, except to thank Mr. Dykes over the airwaves for taking care of "our child" ­– a direct message to Dykes, and, with a boy's life hanging in the balance, part of a covert, tactical mission bent on keeping Dykes, and thus the rest of America, in the dark.

Hostage negotiations, especially those involving children, are always tricky, and trained government negotiators already have a secret bag of tricks that are not shared. In this case, news reporters aided the effort, as well, with many agreeing not to publicize movements of equipment and people in the Midland City, Ala., area so as not to spook Dykes.

But while more will surely be told about the ordeal in Alabama, which ended Monday with a late afternoon raid that saved Ethan but ended in the death of Dykes, it's also clear that parts of the operation will remain shrouded in secrecy, given that it involved America's most expert paramilitary counter-terrorism units collaborating with US special operations forces, under the direct authority of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

"This all rings of a unique covert operation,” says Randall Rogan, a crisis communications expert at Wake Forest University who has been following the story closely, adding the multiagency involvement is “atypical, quite honestly, for … what, after all, is not a significant terrorist event."

"There may be some general overview and general description of what happened, but there won't be full, complete disclosure,” he says. “And that's understandable. There are people out there who pay attention and who would make note of it, who are cognizant of what transpired and how it transpired, and who may take steps to prevent that sort of tactic from being utilized in the future."

The ordeal began last Tuesday when Dykes, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran who had once beaten a dog to death with a metal pipe and threatened children who walked onto his property with death, stormed onto a school bus in Midland City and demanded two children. The bus driver, Charles Poland, Jr., stood in his way as the children began escaping out the back door. Dykes, police say, then killed Mr. Poland and grabbed Ethan, with whom he then escaped to a home-dug 8-by-6-foot bunker in a rural area nearby.

The FBI has not yet said how Dykes died, or how Ethan escaped injury in an extraction that began, the FBI says, when Dykes showed symptoms of being irrational and when a covert FBI camera inserted into the bunker showed him pacing with a gun. Neighbors reported hearing several loud bangs and bursts of gunfire.

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