2. New York Has Become A Difficult Target.
But in that case, why hasn’t Amtrak already been hit? Or Grand Central, or New Jersey Transit, or the Long Island Rail Road? If trains and Americans are Al Qaeda’s objectives, why go after Madrid first?
“New York City may be the safest place in the world right now,” answers Loch Johnson, a U.S. intelligence specialist at the University of Georgia and author of Bombs, Bugs, Drugs, and Thugs: Intelligence and America’s Quest for Security. “We’ve seen for decades that when finite targets are protected, terrorists move on to another area of vulnerability.”
Michael Swetnam, CEO of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, agrees wholeheartedly. “Al Qaeda is an extremely opportunistic organization that wants a soft spot,” says Swetnam, the author of Usama bin Laden’s Al-Qaida: Profile of a Terrorist Network. “So the best way to protect yourself is to be guarded.” And New York, says Swetnam, who has studied the city’s defenses closely, has been surprisingly successful at turning itself into a hard target. The Department of Homeland Security has suffered chronic underfunding and repeated public missteps—remember when Secretary Tom Ridge urged Americans to enjoy their summer vacation on the same day that John Ashcroft warned he had “credible intelligence from multiple sources indicat[ing] that Al Qaeda plans to attempt an attack on the United States in the next few months”? But in New York the system seems to work.
“The New York Police Department has one of the most sophisticated terrorist centers I’ve ever seen,” says Swetnam. “[Police Commissioner] Ray Kelly is having great success getting what he needs from Washington and cutting through bureaucratic obstacles that are holding up other departments.”
Understanding that New York could not rely entirely on the federal government, Kelly beefed up the city’s own intelligence operations from the command level—where he has counterterrorism inspectors working twelve-hour shifts for 24/7 surveillance—down to the street level, where he gets regular updates from garage owners about vehicles in every lot in Manhattan. The NYPD has built up a sophisticated network of informants (see “Anatomy of a Foiled Plot”), and has its own specialists in languages such as Arabic, Pashto, and Urdu monitoring transmissions and broadcasts. Where it once had twenty officers on the terrorism beat, the NYPD now has 4,000. The department has also intensified its efforts at basic police work, like sending officers around to businesses that might be useful to terrorists, such as marinas, army/navy shops, and hunting suppliers, and educating them on what to look out for. Heavily armed Hercules Teams are deployed every day in unpredictable patterns designed to make it hard for an enemy to do advance planning.
What might be most important of all is that New York cops have unequaled access to FBI updates. “Basically, NYPD bullied its way into constant online access to FBI intelligence,” says Swetnam. “The big gripe from most municipalities is they don’t have access to updated information, that the FBI and CIA know about threats in their areas and local police don’t.” New York City precincts, however, are tied into a statewide Counter-Terrorism Network with hot links to real-time state and federal intelligence. “Remember when those disks were discovered with floor plans to New Jersey schools?” Swetnam asks, referring to the capture in July of a Baath Party operative in Iraq who was carrying a CD-rom with photos and safety policies for several schools in New Jersey and elsewhere. Though this information was later thought to be for educational use, not terrorism, the discovery raised serious concerns at the time. “I bet there wasn’t a police department in the entire state of New Jersey which knew about that disk till they heard it on the news. And I bet there wasn’t a police precinct in New York that didn’t know about it within hours of the discovery.”
3. The French Have Saved Us.
“Don’t think because nothing hit New York, nothing was tried,” says Swetnam, who used to be a CIA officer and a special consultant to the first President Bush’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. “Plenty was tried, but everything was thwarted. And this might surprise you, but French intelligence was key.”
There have been at least four attempts uncovered in the past two years to strike the U.S., he says, including specific attacks on New York, but the plans were intercepted and the operations preempted. “The last one was a big attempt to strike our financial centers. A year before that, they were putting together a ricin attack. Both attacks were planned and staged from Great Britain,” says Swetnam. Also, adds Redlener, “attacks on American and international schools overseas have been detected in advance and prevented.”
How is that possible, when the CIA’s intelligence-gathering is supposedly in a shambles? Because of good friends in shadowy places. “The French intelligence services have been just phenomenal,” says Swetnam. “We wouldn’t have captured those cells in Great Britain if it wasn’t for the French, as well as the British and Germans.” Even the ISI—Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, which once used drug money to help finance the Taliban in Afghanistan—has become a crucial U.S. partner in the spy game. “They’re really a bad intelligence service, in terms of morals, but really effective,” says Swetnam.
For a while, it looked like the CIA was hopelessly unprepared to infiltrate Al Qaeda. The agency had spent decades developing satellite and radio-intercept technology, because that was how secrets were transmitted during the Cold War. “It was right to do that at the time,” says Johnson. “But we didn’t transition quickly enough when the nerve center of the enemy changed from the halls of the Kremlin to mountain caves in Afghanistan. All of a sudden, we have to figure out how to intercept messages transmitted from mouth to ear.”
That requires a formidable Arabic-speaking spy force, which would take years to build from scratch. But the French already have one, retained from their days as colonial masters of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, not to mention their mandates over Syria and Lebanon. French intelligence knows how to root out Arabic-speaking insurgents. And while Jacques Chirac may not lend us any French soldiers, he’s apparently been generous with the French spy network.