It didn’t help that Cohen had an abrasive personality and a highly acerbic leadership style. He liked to swear, and, in the words of one longtime colleague, “If he thought you were an idiot, he’d say so.”
But while Cohen could be intimidating and aggressive, he was also prescient. He had been one of the first people in the agency, well before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, to talk seriously about globalization. Cohen envisioned a world where economies became intertwined, where multinational corporations blurred the political boundaries between nations, and where terrorists and criminals operated across borders.
When he retired in 2000, he left believing that the people overseeing the agency hamstrung it. The White House micromanaged operations, slowing down everything. Lawyers fretted over every policy, signaling the government’s disapproval for covert actions. And Congress used its oversight authority to score political points. The CIA was stuck in the middle, which Cohen felt was an impossible position.
What Kelly offered was a chance to start something new, without bureaucratic hand-wringing or political meddling. Cohen eagerly accepted. Cohen didn’t come alone. To build his new program, Cohen wanted someone by his side with access to the most sensitive intelligence, someone who could play a role in day-to-day operations. With a phone call to Langley, Cohen persuaded CIA director George Tenet to lend him Larry Sanchez. Like Cohen, Sanchez was an analyst who’d come up through the ranks. Unlike Cohen, Sanchez still had a blue CIA badge and the privileges that came with it.
Putting a CIA officer inside a police department was unprecedented. The CIA, by its very charter, was prohibited from having any “police, subpoena, or law enforcement powers or internal security functions.” But 9/11 had changed the equation. Security had become the overriding priority.
To the extent Sanchez had an official title, it was the CIA director’s counterterrorism liaison to the state of New York. In reality, he was Cohen’s personal CIA representative, with an office at the CIA station in Manhattan and another at NYPD. The agency was footing Sanchez’s salary, but it was not clear to whom he answered, or what his duties were. He’d start many mornings at his CIA office, reading the latest intelligence reports. Then he’d head downtown to give Cohen a personal briefing that was far more expansive than the updates the NYPD was getting officially from the FBI or CIA. While Cohen could be gruff and combative, Sanchez was easy to talk to and easy to like. A former amateur power lifter and boxer, he told great stories about scuba and skydiving—parachuting into Iraq with Army commandos from Delta Force.
Cohen and Sanchez’s appointments represented a major shift in mind-set at the NYPD. Police are trained to uphold the law. By comparison, CIA officers are trained to subvert laws and operate undetected in places where the Constitution doesn’t apply. They are forbidden from doing this in America.
Sanchez and Cohen met at Cohen’s apartment building on the Upper West Side, near Central Park, and hashed out their vision for a new NYPD. The city’s pockets of cloistered Middle Eastern and South Asian neighborhoods were what most worried the two CIA veterans. The 9/11 attacks had been planned in communities walled off from the police by language, religion, and culture. New York was dotted with neighborhoods where someone could rent a cheap room and remain inconspicuous.
Cohen and Sanchez reviewed the dossiers on the 9/11 hijackers and focused in on the life of Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the hijacking operation. On three continents, people had seen signs of Atta’s growing conservatism, radical ideology, and anti-American vitriol: housemates and roommates, shopkeepers and pub patrons, fellow students and mosquegoers. And two of the 9/11 hijackers had even come to New York and gone completely unnoticed. They traveled the country, conducting surveillance, assembling their team, and training to fly jets. They rented cheap rooms, visited Internet cafés, and joined gyms.
Cohen and Sanchez’s guiding idea was that if the NYPD had its own eyes and ears in the ethnic communities of the five boroughs, maybe things could be different. They needed to be in bookshops to spot the terrorist with his newly grown beard, or in restaurants to overhear friends ranting about America. If detectives infiltrated Muslim student groups, maybe they could identify young men seething with embryonic fanaticism. After all, Atta and his cohorts had been in plain sight, had anyone thought to look.
There was nothing like what Sanchez and Cohen were proposing anywhere in American law enforcement. And of course, the behaviors to be monitored were common not only to the 9/11 hijackers but also to a huge population of innocent people. Most café customers, gym members, college kids, and pub customers were not terrorists. Most devout Muslims weren’t either. To catch the few, the NYPD would spy on the many.