Langley on the Hudson

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Reviewed by Matthew Brzezinski
Sunday, February 1, 2009


Inside America's Best Counterterror Force -- the NYPD

By Christopher Dickey

Simon & Schuster. 321 pp. $26

New York City's Police Department is among the largest and most recognizable police forces on earth. Thanks to the global reach of syndicated television programs, audiences in cities as diverse as Paris, Tel Aviv, Amman, Abu Dhabi, Singapore and Santo Domingo share a cursory familiarity with the comings and goings at One Police Plaza in Manhattan. But what viewers in those exotic locales don't realize is that the NYPD has now come to them for real, posting officers in potential hot spots around the world.

The role of these agents, part of an elite and controversial counter-intelligence unit within the NYPD, is the subject of Christopher Dickey's illuminating Securing the City. Dickey is an old hand on the terrorist beat, having spent decades covering the Middle East and Europe for Newsweek and The Washington Post, and he's eminently well positioned to examine New York City's effort to start its own mini CIA.

Dickey chronicles the creation of this agency in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and in the process he offers a scathing critique of the federal counter-terrorism system from a comparative, and in many way competitive, perspective. The "three letter guys" -- the CIA, DHS, FBI, DIA and NSA -- were never very enthusiastic about New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly's plan to trespass on their jealously guarded turf. Kelly's first hire, a senior CIA administrator by the name of David Cohen, "a man so gray in appearance he could fade into the walls," might as well have defected to Tehran, given how his move to Manhattan was perceived in some corners of our nation's capital.

Freed from the bureaucratic restraints of Washington, Cohen set about building his 600-person unit with astonishing speed and efficiency, infuriating former federal colleagues along the way. In no time, he had twice as many fluent Arabic speakers on his staff as in the entire Federal Bureau of Investigation. His agents speak some 50 languages and dialects in all, which matches the reported linguistic capabilities of the Central Intelligence Agency.

How was this miracle accomplished? Mainly by tapping the latent resources of the NYPD while ignoring the wrongheaded security-clearance guidelines of the federal government. A great many of New York's 40,000 police officers are foreign-born, which makes them ideal operatives with next-to-zero chance of passing the standard FBI security test. "Oooh, they grew up in Pakistan," Cohen mocks Washington's thinking. "This is . . . most frightening. . . . We can't use you." Cohen's Pakistan- or Afghan-born linguists, meanwhile, are patrolling chat rooms in Peshawar or Kandahar, talking about the schools they went to and the streets they hung out on, gaining the trust of radical Web site users and administrators. They are also able to infiltrate immigrant communities in Brooklyn or the Bronx in a way that precious few federal agents can.

The point of all this is to disrupt cells and prevent terrorism rather than to prosecute individuals. This puts the fast-acting NYPD counter-intelligence unit somewhat at odds with the institutionally more patient FBI, where the focus is on the slow and painstaking gathering of legal evidence that can later be used in court. Of course, by then blood may have been spilled. Unlike FBI agents and field offices, Cohen's unit is not judged by arrests or successful convictions. His analysts, many of them Ivy League-educated, work hand-in-glove with seasoned detectives who loathe writing reports but have intimate knowledge of the streets. Together, they can parse the broad terror trends and tailor the intelligence to determine what patterns or threats fit New York's specific landscape.

Dickey does a good job getting into those specifics, and his book contains a wealth of detail that would have been extremely difficult to obtain from typically less forthcoming federal agencies. In Operation Nexus, for instance, the NYPD attempted to ferret out businesses in the New York area that might wittingly or unwittingly supply terrorists with bomb-making components. "You look like Timothy McVeigh," one salesclerk told Cohen's undercover agent as he purchased 990 pounds of ammonium nitrate, a key ingredient in the explosives used in Oklahoma City in 1995 and in the first attempt to bring down New York's twin towers, in 1993. The amount was just shy of the legal threshold requiring a license, and the alarmed clerk called the police. But more often than not, Cohen's agents were able to procure suspicious goods with frightening ease.

Dickey might have dug a little deeper in addressing the persistent but vague allegations in Washington that the NYPD counterterrorism unit cuts legal corners and that some of its methods are unconstitutional. "They do stuff that would get us arrested," says one three-letter guy. Dickey tends to dismiss such accusations as jealous rumblings, which they may well be. But given the sordid record of the war on terror, and the stain it has put on America's reputation, any insinuations of abuse are worth further investigation. That said, Securing the City deftly, colorfully and persuasively highlights how large national bureaucracies can learn from nimble and fleet-footed local start-ups. After all, a speedboat can always run circles around a supertanker. ยท

Matthew Brzezinski is the author of "Fortress America: On the Frontlines of Homeland Security."

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