David Cohen: Leader of New York's Antiterror Squad

In sweltering Mumbai last November, two days after the terrorist rampage that killed or wounded more than 500 people, some odd figures joined the alphabet soup of agencies investigating the atrocity—three New York City police detectives. In 2005 other American cops looked at bomb detonators with Scotland Yard after the London tube bombings. Still others turned up in Madrid after its own train attacks in 2004, and several times in Jerusalem after suicide bombings there. (Article continued below...)

The cops showed up because David Cohen, the spymaster of the NYPD, sent them. A former director of clandestine operations for the Central Intelligence Agency, Cohen wants his own people seeing up close and right away the warning signs—he calls them signatures—that might have revealed a terrorist operation taking shape. And if the FBI, the CIA or any other federal agency objects to the NYPD making the world its beat, Cohen doesn't really care. "Listen to this," he told me one morning at his office at police headquarters in downtown Manhattan. "We got a report from the FBI on the Madrid bombing which was terrific, it was great … It was f–––ing 18 months later!" He drank from a mug with the eagle-andcompass seal of the CIA on it. "They tried the best they could."

Ever since Police Commissioner Ray Kelly took over the NYPD in 2002 and set out to reinvent the department's role fighting terrorists, there have been fights with the Feds, too. Cohen has been right in the middle of them. The most recent, last year, involved his demand that the FBI move faster on requests for federal wiretaps on people with suspected links to terrorists. In a testy exchange of letters between Kelly and the then Attorney General Michael Mukasey, the Feds said they didn't want to submit requests to the courts that might get shot down. The cops wanted them approved yesterday. "In situations short of unambiguous emergency, the system too often moves too slowly and with too little urgency," Kelly wrote.

As the cops see it, "there's a plot taking shape against New York City every day of every week since 9/11," says Cohen. "What that plot consists of, who's doing it and where it's percolating from can change, but there's someone out there every day of the week thinking about that." Kelly, who did a turn as commissioner in 1993, when the World Trade Center was first attacked, returned to the job after 9/11 determined to make sure the city would not be blindsided again. Never a believer in the "clash of civilizations," he called the Bush administration's Global War on Terror "the GWOT," and made the word sound almost obscene. Kelly wanted to keep the combat intensely focused and pragmatic. The idea would be to prevent terrorists from acting, not to prosecute them after the fact. And the key to that would be real-time, actionable intelligence. Which is why he called on Cohen.

The choice wasn't as obvious as a CV might make it seem. There's probably never been a spymaster at the Central Intelligence Agency so hated by so many of his own spies as Cohen was in the mid-1990s when he ran the Directorate of Operations. "His first name wasn't David," recalls a top operative who served with him. "It was 'F–––ing Cohen'." Working obsessively, smoking pack after pack of cigarettes each day, Cohen was one of those gray men in the world of intelligence who can disappear into the background of a room, like John le Carré's George Smiley. He never quite fit in with the self-styled swashbucklers of the DO.

His whole career, in fact, Cohen had been an outsider on the inside. He was a street-smart kid from Boston, educated at Northeastern University, who joined the agency in 1967 when it was still dominated by the Ivy League. As an analyst, he focused on global issues like commodity markets and the oil trade, while most others specialized in countries or regions. In the late 1980s he oversaw the CIA's highly limited and controversial intelligence gathering inside the United States, which included recruiting "agents of access" in immigrant communities who could help recruit other agents abroad. After he was appointed deputy director for operations in 1995, he led the agency's spies around the world yet had never served in the field himself.

Throughout the storms that battered the CIA in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cohen seemed to fall upward. The agency suffered through Iran-contra, failed to foresee the collapse of the Soviet empire or Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and discovered moles burrowed deep inside its clandestine services. All around Cohen, things seemed to be crumbling. "When I became the DDO, there were seven people in clandestine service training. Seven!" he remembers. He kept on as best he could, creating what became known as the bin Laden unit in the mid-1990s, long before most of the world had heard of the terrorist mastermind. But by the time Cohen decided to take a job in the private sector in 2000, he was more reviled than revered, blamed for many woes that were not of his making.

Then 9/11 happened, and Kelly asked him to head the NYPD's Intelligence Division, making its primary mission to stop terrorist attacks on New York. Cohen asked for two days to decide, but called back in about an hour. "It's like starting the CIA over in the post-9/11 world," he said later. "What would you do if you could begin it all over again? Hah. This is what you would do."

In those first months of 2002, the conventional wisdom was that Al Qaeda was planning a second wave of attacks on the United States—as Vice President Dick Cheney said, new horrors were "not a matter of if, but when." Cohen had to scramble to get his organization up and running. "It was like putting tires on a speeding car," he said. He turned to the CIA for help, getting Lawrence Sanchez, a senior operative who had also been head of intelligence at the Department of Energy, seconded to the NYPD. Sanchez was able to keep Cohen abreast of anything and everything the CIA learned abroad, including whatever information about New York might be spilled by prisoners interrogated at the agency's "black sites."

But when it came to dealing with his old agency, Cohen believed, as he told colleagues, "there's no such thing as information sharing, there is only information trading." So the question was how his shop could start generating the kind of intel product that he could barter. He suggested to Kelly that New York cops be assigned overseas in cities where the local police were already deeply immersed in the fight against terrorists. But the real key to the success of the intelligence division lay closer to home.

Some 40 percent of New Yorkers are born outside the United States. That could be a dangerous problem, and in the popular imagination it probably is, but Kelly and Cohen saw the city's demographics as one of their greatest assets. In the aftermath of 9/11, the FBI and CIA (the "three-letter guys," in police parlance) had terrible problems finding agents and operatives who were fluent in foreign languages. Cold War–style background checks often eliminated recruits who had been born overseas. And native-born Americans were uninterested in foreign languages. In 2002, the total number of undergraduate degrees granted in Arabic in all U.S. colleges and universities—yes, all of them—was six.

In the NYPD, on the other hand, among the more than 35,000 serving officers in 2002, language testing quickly identified hundreds fluent in Arabic or Dari, Persian, Pashto, Fukienese—45 languages in all. Today, in any graduating class of the police academy there may be 50 nationalities or more.

In 2003, two alleged Iranian agents caught photographing the No. 7 subway line beneath the East River were surprised to find themselves confronted by a cop who spoke fluent Persian. They quickly left the country. In 2003, a young undercover officer born in Bangladesh penetrated a small group of angry young immigrants, two of whom had started plotting to blow up targets in Staten Island and the subway station at Herald Square.

When it comes to disrupting potential terrorist plots, cops can use simple techniques out of bounds to the CIA or even the FBI. Cohen's detectives, for instance, might follow a suspect onto a subway and have a uniformed cop collar him for an infraction as minor as sitting on two seats at a time. Once he's taken down to the station, he may be faced with the threat that his friends will find out he was there and think he's talked. "Mostly, we don't hear from those guys again," says one of Cohen's senior operatives.

Are we safe yet? Cohen doesn't think so. Homegrown "groups of guys" angered and inspired by what they see on the Web may be spotted and disrupted, but the threat remains that some will be missed. Others, like the London bombers in 2005, can visit terrorist-training camps to learn truly deadly skills. And all the while, Osama bin Laden remains at large, still looking for "the big bang," for another 9/11, says Cohen. "That motherf–––er wants to do it before he dies!" Not if the NYPD can help it.