'A Mighty Heart' Character, in His Own Words

One of the last people to see Daniel Pearl alive tells his story.

June 22, 2007 — -- In 2002 Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan after attempting to interview an alleged associate of Richard Reid, the man convicted of trying to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight with a shoe bomb.

Pearl's story was adapted for the silver screen in "A Mighty Heart," which opens in theaters today. Superstar actress Angelina Jolie stars in the lead role of Pearl's wife, Marianne.

Randall Bennett, one of the last people to see Pearl alive, was recently interviewed for a series of short videos posted on YouTube by the U.S. State Department.

Bennett was the regional security officer in Pakistan when Pearl disappeared. As the head of the State Department's bureau of Diplomatic Security in the country, Bennett, who just returned weeks ago from a one-year tour as an RSO in Iraq, was one of the central figures in the desperate two-week search for the missing American. His character, played by actor Will Patton, was featured prominently in the film.

In the short clips, Bennett, appearing much more relaxed and polished than he's portrayed in the movie, describes how he first heard about and reacted to the news of Pearl's kidnapping. He details the efforts he and his team undertook, along with their Pakistani colleagues, to find the missing reporter and hunt down the network of people that orchestrated his capture.

The movie, based on a book written by Marianne Pearl, matches Bennett's account in the interview.

On the day he was kidnapped, Pearl was pursuing an interview with Sheikh Gilani, a Pakistani man he had been told was tied to the shoe bomber Richard Reid, a hot story at the time. An investigation after Pearl's murder revealed that Gilani was used as bait by Sheikh Omar, a man who went by the name of Bashir, to lure Pearl into the kidnapping. "Sheikh Gilani, as it turned out, had no idea his name was even being used," Bennett said in the interview.

"You have to remember that Sheikh Omar was a professional at this. This is what he did for a living. He tricked people. He was a terrorist who prided himself on his ability over a particular period of time to bring somebody into a level of trust and confidence where he could carry out his act and that appears to be the case," Bennett added.

Before attending the interview Pearl consulted with various officials and experts, including Bennett, to determine whether it was safe to meet with Gilani. According to Bennett, Pearl left their meeting agreeing that it would be best to meet Gilani only in a public place. A later investigation revealed that as Pearl waited for the interviewee at a restaurant he received a phone call on his cell phone and left, never to be seen in person again.

In the video clips Bennett reveals that he had considered sending an undercover surveillance team to accompany Pearl to the interview in case anything bad should happen. Ultimately Bennett decided not to do so because these services are reserved for high-ranking U.S. officials. "It wouldn't have been appropriate and the decision was made not to do it, not to use U.S. government resources for private interests," he said in the interview.

Though Bennett never met Pearl before their meeting the day he disappeared, he said the two quickly became friends. "In the hour interview, we just sort of hit it off," Bennett said. "He had a really great smile, a good personality, good character, a good-hearted guy who was trying to do what was right. And so we liked each other and we had made plans to get together after."

Bennett describes the following days — and one of the most heart-wrenching parts of the movie — when Marianne is told her husband has been killed. In that dramatic scene Marianne runs into her room and hangs her head in shock. She slumps onto the bed and shrieks uncontrollably.

He said the entire ordeal had brought the team closer together, a sense the film's director sought to develop throughout the movie as the investigators worked feverishly to find Pearl and then coped with the grim reality of his grisly death.

"The significance and the emotional bonding that goes on during an investigation of this nature, it wasn't just between Marianne and me, but yes, our friendship has become stronger. But it's with the senior superintendent of police, the deputy inspector general, the intelligence elements, the FBI elements that were agents that were involved. Everybody became very tight," he said.

In a scene also depicted in the movie, just days after hearing of her husband's death, Marianne brings those who worked to find her husband together for a dinner.

"We were crushed that we had not been able to get Danny back for her, and yet two days after she found out this has happened, she pulled herself together and threw a thank-you dinner for everybody who had been involved," Bennett said in the interview.

Bennett, who interrogated Pearl's kidnapper, Omar, on several occasions, said in the videos that the man never showed any remorse for his actions.

"Sheikh Omar was — he was arrogant, self-righteous, and in some discussions with him he actually made statements to the effect that because he felt that his cause was just that he would have no problem with killing a busload of children in order to get a point across," Bennett said.

In the film Omar is seen defending himself during the trial, ranting about the justification for violence. Bennett said he and others had made every effort to prevent Marianne from meeting Omar. "We were trying to keep her from any additional trauma," he explained.

When asked whether he had any reservations about the movie's release and the potential for commercialization of Pearl's tragic story, Bennett said he didn't. "I think the time has come that this story is told publicly, and I think that film is a good way to carry it out," he said.

While he admitted he hadn't seen the film at the time of the interview, he did say he hoped it would be healthy for Pearl's family. "I think this is good for Marianne. Perhaps it's even a point of closure. She has indicated that this is something that she wants her son Adam to be able to see and understand about his father," he said.

Marianne was pregnant with Adam at the time of Pearl's death.

Bennett said he personally hoped to meet Jolie and her partner, actor Brad Pitt, who produced the movie, at the movie's premiere. He also said he hoped the film would serve a larger purpose to educate the audience.

"I think it will create a better understanding about terrorism for the entire world," he said.