On the morning of September 11, the detectives of the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division traveled in force toward the burning towers of the World Trade Center, the biggest crime scene in American history, to find absolutely nothing for themselves to do. The city had been quickly cordoned off. Some made it as far as Chambers Street. Others were stopped at Canal Street. “Stand by,” they were told. They milled about for hours, waiting for orders that never came. Finally, a contingent of officers was dispatched toward ground zero with garbage cans to collect guns and equipment left by fallen first responders.
Later in the day, a group of them gathered at the Police Academy, where Deputy Chief John Cutter told them to start contacting their informants. At that moment, it may have been the only possible command—which didn’t mean it was a useful one. Despite the name, the Intelligence Division was mostly concentrated on gangs and drug dealers, as well as providing a glorified chauffeur service for visiting dignitaries. International terrorism had never been part of their purview.
But they had to start somewhere, and the detectives did what they were told, reaching out to their network of informants—dope dealers and gang members—to ask what they knew about the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.
For the next few months, the Intel cops worked alongside the FBI out of makeshift command centers aboard the decommissioned USS Intrepid and in an FBI parking garage, where detectives sat on the concrete floor, responding to a flood of tips pouring in from a public consumed with the possibility of another attack, questioning Muslims whose neighbors suddenly deemed them suspicious.
When Ray Kelly was sworn in as police commissioner in January 2002, one of his first goals was to eliminate that kind of aimless fumbling. The first man to rise from cadet to police commissioner and the first person to hold the top job twice, Kelly was police commissioner under Mayor David Dinkins, when terrorists detonated a truck bomb in the garage below the World Trade Center’s North Tower in 1993.
Though Kelly’s detectives were instrumental in solving that bombing, they’d never had a chance to prevent it. And that attack had done nothing to change the attitude of the federal government—specifically the FBI—which rarely gave local police information it could use ahead of time.
After 9/11, the debris field smoldering a block away from Kelly’s Battery Park apartment crystallized the notion that as long as the federal government controlled all the information, the NYPD was merely waiting to respond to the next attack, helpless to prevent it.
So Kelly called for a new approach, the likes of which America had never seen. Over the ensuing decade, the FBI, CIA, and NSA would build surveillance programs that monitored bank transactions, phone records, and the e-mail routing fields known as metadata, which have recently erupted in the scandal surrounding Edward Snowden’s revelations. But the NYPD went even further than the federal government. The activities Kelly set in motion after 9/11 pushed deeply into the private lives of New Yorkers, surveilling Muslims in their mosques, their sporting fields, their businesses, their social clubs, even their homes in a way not seen in America since the FBI and CIA monitored antiwar activists during the Nixon administration. It was a proactive approach, but, in constitutional terms, a novel one.
To reinvent the Intelligence Division, Kelly called on David Cohen, a former senior CIA officer who was a year into a post-retirement stint with the Wall Street insurance giant American International Group. Kelly offered a rare opportunity not just to return to intelligence work but also to build something from scratch—in effect, the city’s own CIA.
Cohen joined the CIA in 1966 as a 26-year-old economist, a slender young man with a firm jaw and conservative pompadour haircut in the style of a young Ronald Reagan. He left in 2000, having served as the deputy director of operations—America’s top spy. And during those nearly 35 years, the bookish, bespectacled Cohen had been one of the most creative agents at the CIA, with a gift for reshaping bureaucracies toward new ends.
Back in the eighties, he started an analytical team to investigate terrorism, the first of its kind at the agency. Then, in 1996, years before Osama bin Laden entered the public consciousness, Cohen assigned a dozen officers to gather intelligence on him.
Still, many in the CIA regarded Cohen’s tenure at the helm of the spy service as a dark period. From 1995 to 1997, under pressure from a budget-conscious Congress and an uninterested White House, Cohen gutted the CIA’s spy corps and cut loose many of its paid informants. In an unusual move, the New York Times in an editorial called for Cohen’s ouster.