Dickey: Terror's Real Frontline

You want to see the front line in the fight against terrorists? You don't have to go to Iraq. The cop on the beat is walking it every day where it really counts, right at home, because terrorists don't care about lines, they care about getting you where you live. And in New York City, home to ground zero, the NYPD has created over the last six years what one CIA veteran in Washington calls "the best counterterrorism center in the world." Working with the FBI and other federal agencies ("the three-letter guys," as a police sergeant calls them), the NYPD says it has stopped at least six significant plots against the city.

Then again, maybe you don't really care about terrorism any more. Maybe you really do feel safe or you just don't want to hear another politician telling you to be scared. The T word has grown tiresome. "People have such short attention spans these days, that's to be expected," says Paul Browne, the New York City Police Department's deputy commissioner for public information. "The police department certainly expects it. You can't really expect an entire city of 8 million to stay in a state of quasi-heightened alert." So sometimes the cops put on a show, like the thousands of police that poured onto the streets for New Year's Eve. But oftentimes they operate in ways that are more subtle, even secretive. What they never let themselves do for a minute, however, is forget that the bad guys are still out there, and that they must calculate very carefully how to meet a threat that is real, not imagined. (Article continued below...)

I wish the same could be said of our presidential candidates. Watching the campaign in these heady days of emotive tears and comebacks, one has a sense the debate about national security is increasingly detached from reality. The pause in Baghdad's carnage has the Republican pretenders to the presidency treating Iraq as a problem almost solved. It is not, as even the vaunted Gen. David Petraeus attests. Nor has the danger of nuclear proliferation in Iran diminished, even if the Democrats seem inclined to think the crisis has passed. The threat of a power vacuum in atomic Pakistan doesn't go away, the Taliban do not retreat in Afghanistan, nor does the dangerous anger of terrorist wannabes subside in the United States merely because the headlines fade.

These all remain clear and present dangers, yet perhaps because the situations are so intractable one hears only airy pontifications from the leading candidates. In one notably weird exchange, Mormon Mitt Romney and Baptist Mike Huckabee cited the arcane works of jihadist ideologue Sayyid Qutb, executed in Egypt more than 40 years ago, to underpin the sweeping assertion that Muslim anger against the United States has nothing to do with reactions to American policies. Sweet exegesis! Such neo-Orientalism will do little to make us safer.

What really can make a difference is more intelligent use of local law enforcement. It is, says NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, "a tremendous force multiplier." There are about 12,000 FBI agents in America, but there are more than 700,000 state and local cops. "They are the ones that are going to have the contacts, going to have the information," says Kelly. This is especially true as the grim experience of Iraq and setbacks in Afghanistan have shown the limits of military adventurism in response to terrorism. Yet the Bush administration, while it continues pumping more than $2 billion a week into Iraq, is constantly looking to cut the few hundred million dollars of federal funding spent on local cops in America. "It strikes me as ironic," says Lee Baca, the sheriff of Los Angeles County, "that as the nation shifts away from a military strategy it is cutting back on resources for law enforcement, which will be needed to pick up the slack."

(You'd think former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who built his rep supporting "zero tolerance" policing in the 1990s, would understand where best to focus resources for fighting terrorists. But no. Giuliani still supports the Bush policy of pre-emptive wars and wants to dump even more money into a military of cold war proportions. Then again, if you really look at Giuliani's record, you see he fired William Bratton, his most effective police commissioner and eventually installed as his top cop Bernie Kerik, a personal crony who's now under indictment on a variety of federal charges. As for the current mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg—who appointed Kelly—he may yet become an independent candidate for president, but for now he's undeclared.)

While the distracted debate about national security continues sporadically at the stratospheric level on the campaign trail, at NYPD headquarters, mercifully, the clouds of hot air are coming off the top of coffee cups. Paranoid theorizing about what "must be going on" in the Muslim world are played down and the phrase "global war on terror" is spoken only rarely, and often then with irony.

"We're not in the 'must be going on' business, we're in the business of what is going on," said David Cohen, the deputy commissioner for intelligence, when I saw him in his office the other day. "We have made our bones on a very traditional low-technology intelligence program where the emphasis is on human talent and accountability." Cohen smiled and sipped his coffee from a mug that bore the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency, where he used to be in charge of all clandestine activities. In that bureaucracy, accountability was harder to come by, so Cohen is enthusiastic when he credits Kelly for the very un-federal effectiveness of the NYPD. "You get decisions, and he doesn't look back," said Cohen.

As we talked, a television screen on the wall showed Pakistan in flames. When news had broken the previous morning that Benazir Bhutto was killed, the NYPD, now well accustomed to the repercussions of events on the other side of the world, took several measures "almost on automatic pilot," said Cohen. Some 100,000 Pakistanis live in New York City. They're concentrated in three precincts in Brooklyn and the Bronx. The morning of the assassination, people from the intel division briefed the cops who'd be patrolling in those precincts about the background of the Bhutto killing and told them to be ready for emotional reactions, but not to overreact themselves. Meanwhile, extra police were deployed to guard Pakistani diplomatic posts, the Pakistani airline offices and Pakistani owned banks around the city.

That same morning of the Bhutto assassination, at the 9 o'clock meeting that Kelly holds daily with Cohen and Richard Falkenrath, the deputy commissioner for counterterrorism, those three already were looking at the incident's impact on future threats to New York. "The challenge that Pakistan has for us in New York City is that it has, reportedly, 60 nuclear weapons, and it has 10,000 madrassas," said Cohen. "To me, that brackets the concern." The fact that many of the students being radicalized in those religious schools come from countries other than Pakistan is a further complication. So is the development of "homegrown" terrorist cells of people with roots in Pakistan (and in this context Cohen included what's going on in Great Britain as "homegrown" since visas are not typically required of British citizens coming to the States). When I asked Cohen whom he thought was behind the Bhutto killing, which was the subject of endless speculation on the news, he said the fact didn't matter as much as perceptions: who would be blamed, who might be targeted for retaliation as a result, and would that have repercussions in his city.

It's not a pretty picture, but it's a clear appreciation of what is known, what it is possible to know and what it is possible to do, which is the way police think about security, and the way presidents ought to think about it, too.