THE recent arrest of Najibullah Zazi, the suspected terrorist in Denver, highlights several important aspects of our domestic counterterrorism programs. First, even as the memory of 9/11 fades, there are terrorists in this country intent on attacking us again. Second, the F.B.I. and New York Police Department remain engaged in a counterproductive bureaucratic struggle.
Eight years ago, shortly after the attack on the twin towers, the police commissioner, Ray Kelly, with the support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, assigned more than 100 detectives to the F.B.I.’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. The bureau warmly welcomed this commitment. However, Commissioner Kelly also built a unilateral N.Y.P.D. counterterrorism unit and hired David Cohen, the former head of the C.I.A.’s clandestine service, to run it. The F.B.I. was in fierce opposition to New York’s having unilateral capacity, and some people there still are.
I know all about the tension between the F.B.I. and the Police Department. During my tenure at the department, I had bruising battles with the bureau. In one case, the F.B.I. and the department had different informants covering the same suspect. Each agency fought for control of the case and questioned the validity of the other’s information. At times, I worried that this internecine feuding might jeopardize the case, but we worked it out.
The F.B.I. and the Police Department also clashed over releasing threat warnings to the public and to private-sector entities. The F.B.I. claimed ownership of the information (usually obtained by federal intelligence sources like the National Security Agency or the C.I.A.) and wanted to dominate the podium at news conferences. Some in the department insisted that since we had the primary responsibility to protect the city, we should have the principal role in communicating to the public. Mayor Bloomberg got pulled into the fray, and eventually these issues too were worked out, but resentment lingers in both agencies to this day.
Fortunately, over the past several years — and especially since a fine agent, Joseph Demarest, took over the New York office of the F.B.I. last year — these tensions have diminished. Even the Police Department’s practice of stationing detectives outside the United States has been begrudgingly accepted by the bureau.
However, the Zazi case seems to have provided an opportunity for some in the F.B.I. to settle old scores and perhaps lobby to close the department’s counterterrorism unit, especially as Commissioner Kelly and Mr. Cohen consider their next steps after nearly eight years in their respective jobs. It should be noted that the F.B.I. has been able to prevent police departments elsewhere in the country from duplicating New York’s operation.
What about problems within the department? News reports that the deputy inspector in charge of the investigations unit has now been transferred have led to speculation of friction between that office and the counterterrorism unit. This seems off base. The deputy inspector, Paul Ciorra, who has an outstanding record, was promoted to a coveted command slot in Highway Patrol. He is being succeeded by Joseph Herbert, a highly regarded investigator with years of experience on the joint terrorism task force.
Yes, it appears that some detectives might have been too aggressive in pursuing leads in the Zazi case. They apparently showed a photo of Mr. Zazi to a local informant who then tipped off the suspect. This may have contributed to a premature takedown of the cell, and we may not be able to charge some of Mr. Zazi’s confederates. In my judgment, this was an error, but not a big one.
The F.B.I. had asked the Police Department to help in finding sources regarding Mr. Zazi, and provided photos and other data for the department to use. As we now know from public documents, Mr. Zazi’s was a serious case. He had been trained in Pakistani terrorist camps and was acquiring precursor chemicals to build improvised bombs similar to those used in the London subway bombing of 2005. The United Nations General Assembly was getting underway as Mr. Zazi drove here from Denver; the Police Department was at its highest level of alert.
So, what lessons can we draw from this case regarding the state of our counterterrorism efforts in New York and nationwide? First and most obvious, we must remain vigilant and aggressive in finding domestic terrorist cells.
Second, we are reminded that intelligence operations using telephone intercepts and informant networks are the key to foiling Al Qaeda. There are limits to defensive strategies in our major cities: barriers, detection devices and uniformed patrols have their role, but in a sprawling city like New York the only real way to prevent a terrorist attack is to penetrate the cell before it can act.
We have apparently thwarted Al Qaeda’s effort to attack us again, one of many such instances over the last eight years. Our domestic investigators must stay focused in their relentless pursuit of terrorist cells in America. Their ability to do their job should not be watered down by lawmakers or their departments.
At the same time, the men and women of the New York Police department must be careful to minimize mistakes and to stay clearly within the law when they investigate United States citizens and residents. But given a choice — and there are always choices made every day in this city by investigators on the street — we should err on the side of action, not passivity. Mr. Zazi and his deadly bomb recipes remind us why.
There should be no doubt why Mr. Zazi came to New York this month. As we saw with the London subway terrorists, many of whom came from Leeds, a city several hours away from the British capital, terrorists seek out financial, media and population centers when they select their targets. New York City has been and remains squarely in Al Qaeda’s crosshairs. Fortunately, the Police Department and the F.B.I. have built an unparalleled program here that has been up to the challenge so far, and they should both be celebrated, not criticized, for their work in the Zazi case.