Twelve years after 9/11, the U.S. remains a prime target of al Qaeda, with New York City as the bull’s-eye. Yet in the interval, New York hasn’t been successfully struck again. Enemies Within suggests an explanation for the city’s good fortune. Written by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, reporters with the Associated Press, the book tells two intertwined stories. One is an account of the 2009 attempt by Najibullah Zazi, an al Qaeda recruit, to bomb New York City’s subways. The other is a chronicle of the city’s counterterrorism efforts in the years since the Twin Towers fell. Together, contend the authors, the two tales tell us a great deal—not all of it flattering—about the ways in which law enforcement has kept the city safe.
Counterterrorism in New York is carried out by a patchwork of agencies, the two biggest players being the New York City Police Department and the FBI. What preoccupies Messrs. Apuzzo and Goldman is a sub-unit of the NYPD, the Intelligence Division. Citing violations of civil liberties, they take a dim view of its leadership and activities. Its supposed shortcomings are a major thrust of their book.
The Intelligence Division—or NYPD Intel, as it is called—was long a backwater. After 9/11, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly breathed life into it, installing the rough-riding David Cohen as its director. Mr. Cohen was a former CIA official with a reputation for aggressive management. To choose a person with his institutional background, in the authors’ view, was to invite trouble: “Nobody questioned the wisdom of taking someone trained to break the laws of foreign nations and putting him in a department responsible for upholding the rule of law.” In the frantic search for hidden al Qaeda cells, Mr. Cohen’s division recruited an army of informants to infiltrate Islamic institutions across the city and indeed across the region. Such a dragnet approach, the authors suggest, threatened basic constitutional rights.
Thus in its investigative zeal, NYPD Intel targeted the guiltless, the authors say: “Any trait shared among terrorists was seen as a possible indicator, even if that trait also applied to many innocent people,” write Messrs. Apuzzo and Goldman. Mosques weren’t exempt. In an “unprecedented moment in the history of law enforcement,” NYPD Intel “regarded houses of worship—and everyone who prayed there—as possible criminal organizations.” Investigating many to find the few, NYPD Intel “considered rhetoric alone as a serious allegation of actual terrorism,” sufficient to have one’s name added to a terrorist watch list.
In contrast to such extreme—and, we are told, ineffective—conduct, the FBI emerges in Enemies Within as a model of rectitude. It too sent informants into mosques to gain information about suspects, but only upon evidence of criminal activity. Without meeting stringent legal requirements, the scrupulously law-abiding federal agents, Messrs. Apuzzo and Goldman report, couldn’t even “sit outside a mosque as part of an investigation and collect license plate numbers of people in attendance.”
Enemies Within makes much of the fact that it was the FBI—despite being encumbered by the supposed handicap of observing the Constitution—and not NYPD Intel that busted Najibullah Zazi and his two al Qaeda confederates. Zazi, an Afghan-American, had traveled with his fellow plotters to Pakistan to train in the arts of violent jihad. Upon their return, they intended to blow themselves up in three coordinated blasts on the New York City subways. Spooked by surveillance, Zazi fled to relatives in Colorado, where the FBI swooped in. (Zazi pleaded guilty in 2010 to conspiracy to commit murder, among other charges.)
Even if NYPD Intel deserves little or no credit for that particular counterterrorism success, it is hard to endorse the authors’ broader case that the unit, even as it abandoned necessary restraints on police conduct, contributed little to the city’s security. Mr. Kelly would have been grossly negligent if, in the wake of 9/11, he had not shifted resources to gathering intelligence on potential malefactors and the communities in which they blend in and hide. It is in the nature of terrorism that its operations, aimed at mass death, are secretive and conspiratorial. Normal cop-on-the-beat practices won’t do the job.
Mr. Kelly’s decisions paid off in averting the attempted bombing of the Herald Square subway in 2004, as well as other plots. The authors imply that, unless a long list of thwarted attacks can be adduced, no justification for NYPD Intel’s efforts can be claimed. But in the age of mass terrorism, even one successful attack is far too many. In any event, police work is measurable, in part, by the absence of the wrongdoing it aims to prevent, and by that measure the NYPD is clearly doing something right. In seeking out terrorists, NYPD Intel deters them. We can’t know what might have happened in New York without its efforts.
Did the vigilance come at a cost to civil liberties? Perhaps, but even Messrs. Apuzzo and Goldman conclude, at the end of a book that demonizes law-enforcement tactics, that “the NYPD says it’s all been legal. And it might be right.” It isn’t difficult to see why the infiltration of mosques would be offensive to Muslims and imply an overbroad suspicion of law-abiding citizens. But as all of us know from our experience at airports—where overbroad suspicion is the order of the day—the effort to thwart terrorism involves painful and debatable trade-offs. The authors disapprove of the scope of Mr. Kelly’s counterterrorism policy, but it didn’t limit freedom of religion and speech in any legally meaningful way.
The merit of the authors’ assiduous reporting is often undercut by their intemperate and politically tendentious rhetoric. They tell us that NYPD Intel “fancied itself a miniature CIA,” that it cast itself along the lines of Dick Cheney’s “dark side,” and that it has engaged in tactics that are likely to be remembered next to “waterboarding, secret prisons, and warrantless wiretapping.” One doubts whether New Yorkers, grateful not to have suffered a second terrorist attack, would agree. Such claims are, in any case, an injustice to New York’s Finest.