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Christopher Dickey takes us inside the best and most ambitious anti-terror operation in the country, the seat-of-the-pants intelligence operation of the NYPD—with undercover resources all over the world and two extraordinary men in charge..
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Christopher Dickey, Newsweek's award-winning Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor, reports regularly from Baghdad, Cairo, and Jerusalem, and writes the weekly "Shadowland" column -- an inside look at the world of spies and soldiers, guerrillas and suicide bombers -- for Newsweek Online. He is the author of Summer of Deliverance, Expats, With the Contras, and the novel Innocent Blood. He lives in Paris.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Black Sites
Ways of Making Them Talk
There were so many blind spots, so many new threats, as if September 11 had opened a seismic fissure in some lunatic netherworld and pure evil poured out. Starting just a week after the attacks on New York and Washington, someone mailed envelopes laced with anthrax to journalists in New York City and Florida and then to senators in D.C. The bacterial spores infected twenty-two people; five of them died. All of the letters appear to have been sent from Princeton, New Jersey, and all concluded with the same message:
DEATH TO AMERICA.
DEATH TO ISRAEL.
ALLAH IS GREAT.
But the rest of the wording suggested someone trying to sound like a jihadist, not a genuine mujahid steeped in the pious rhetoric of radicalism -- perhaps someone trying to warn the United States of vast horrors to come by giving it a little taste of mass destruction: "09-11-01...THIS IS NEXT....TAKE PENACILIN NOW," read the first notes. "YOU CANNOT STOP US.... WE HAVE ANTHRAX.... YOU DIE NOW.... ARE YOU AFRAID?" read the second ones. Investigators traced the bacteria's DNA to a strain that originated at the U.S. Army's biological weapons research facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and an American scientist eventually was named as "a person of interest" to the investigation, but the case went cold.
Then in December 2001, just three days before Christmas, American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami made an emergency landing in Boston. Two female flight attendants had discovered a thoroughly unsavory-looking passenger holding one of his thick-soled trainers on his lap and trying to light a fuse attached to it. He was a big guy, more than six feet tall, but one of the women tried to grab the shoe away from him with all the ferocity of an insulted schoolmistress. He bit her thumb. She screamed for help. Finally other passengers subdued him, tied him up with seat-belt extensions, and tranquilized him with Valium from the first-aid kit.
The terrorist's goofy face and the general weirdness of the incident would give comedy writers something to joke about on late-night talk shows, but all one hundred and ninety-eight people on that Boeing 767 came very close to dying that day. "The Shoe Bomber" Richard Reid was a half-Jamaican, half-English convert to Islam who fancied himself a tough guy (as his pseudonym he used the name Van Damme, after the Belgian star of martial-arts B movies, Jean-Claude Van Damme). The sole of his shoe had been cobbled out of the plastic explosive component PETN, with a detonator made of that terrorist favorite, TATP. If Reid had had a cigarette lighter instead of crappy matches from a cheap hotel, he would have blown the plane apart high over the Atlantic, where traces of the bomb and the way it was smuggled aboard would have been all but impossible to find. We might still be trying to solve the mystery of what happened.
In the immediate, uncertain aftermath of those crimes, Ray Kelly's basic goal was to know everything about anything that could threaten New York City. Clearly the big danger remained Osama bin Laden and his fellow travelers on the jihadist trail. But the sixteen branches of the federal government's "intelligence community" -- the FBI, CIA, NSA, and others -- were jealous of one another and essentially contemptuous of local police, including the NYPD. It was a story as old as terrorism. And they had a lock on the surveillance and spying both at home and abroad to which Kelly's force needed instant access. No matter how much Kelly reorganized his shop, the three-letter guys weren't going to open up theirs unless he could crack the federal bureaucracy.
In the spring of 2002, as fears grew that Osama bin Laden was positioning his assets for a new strike at the United States, and very likely at New York City, there was no time to lose. "We brought on tough professionals," Kelly said proudly as he looked back on those early days. They were all experienced men, picked not least because they knew how to batter their way through the federal labyrinth. "We wanted information -- and we got it any way we could get it," Kelly told me. "We were grabbing it and pushing it and shoving it."
Kelly appointed as deputy commissioner for counterterrorism Frank Libutti, a retired lieutenant general from the Marine Corps who "had a lot of credibility, a lot of gravitas." As Kelly saw it, the situation inside the FBI-run Joint Terrorism Task Force was a "total catastrophe." So Libutti got the job of packing scores more NYPD detectives into the JTTF and bringing them under his direct supervision. "Just by sheer presence we were getting information," Kelly said. But the FBI was all about catching criminals after the fact, and that just wasn't going to be enough.
Terrorists had to be spotted and caught, or at least scared off, before they acted. Anticipation and prevention had to take precedence over arrest and conviction. And in Kelly's scheme of things, that's precisely where Cohen came in. Not only could he organize a police intelligence division with extraordinary capabilities of its own, he could tap into Langley directly. "Dave has, of course, great contacts with the CIA," Kelly told me. The FBI and the CIA were notoriously bad about communicating with each other, as The 9/11 Commission Report and subsequent investigations would document in excruciating detail. But the NYPD was out to get solid information from both. "In the early days, we've got it coming in from a lot of different sources. That's what we wanted," said Kelly. "So we're getting it through the JTTF, we're getting it through other federal sources. So, were we in the loop? Yes. And when we weren't in the loop we complained." He smiled. "And we had enough clout to stay in the loop."
"We knew everything," Cohen told me when I asked him about those early years. In fact, the NYPD had worked out a very special relationship with the CIA.
Cohen declined to go into details, perhaps because a key figure was another veteran from the Agency who managed to join the NYPD without actually leaving the CIA. Lawrence H. "Larry" Sanchez and Cohen had been acquainted through the years at Langley. They had not liked each other. Sanchez was one of the people from the Operations Directorate who thought Cohen's name was "Fucking." But they got to know each other better when Sanchez was the Agency's main man at the United Nations and Cohen was running the Agency's office in New York City.
Physically it would be hard to imagine two men more different in appearance and personal style. Where Cohen is quintessentially gray, fading into the background, Sanchez is square-built, thick-necked, and bullet-headed, with "powerlifting and boxing titles," according to one brief biography, and qualification as a master scuba diver. He's also an accomplished and extremely competitive skydiver whose body, as a result, is wired together in several places. Having joined the CIA as an intelligence officer in 1984, he served in Afghanistan and Egypt before returning to Langley to serve as assistant to Executive Director Nora Slatkin while Cohen was DDO. In 1998 Sanchez was seconded from CIA to the Department of Energy to head its Office of Intelligence. Sanchez was supposed to try to clean up the mess created by the hunt for a mole suspected of giving China critical atomic secrets.
The point man on that same investigation was an FBI agent described in one press report as "an espionage troubleshooter": Edward J. Curran -- the same FBI agent accused by veteran CIA operatives of laying to waste the clandestine services of the Agency after the Aldrich Ames case in the early 1990s. Detailed to DOE as head of counterintelligence, Curran had inherited a botched inquiry in which the main suspect, a Chinese-American scientist at Los Alamos named Wen Ho Lee, learned before he should have that he was under suspicion.
(In the end, Sanchez and Curran at DOE and several agents from the FBI never found enough evidence to mount a prosecution for espionage in a case that seemed of enormous importance to national security. Had the Chinese really gotten their hands on crucial details of nuclear weapon design? Wen Ho Lee took a plea-bargain deal for mishandling classified documents on his office computer. Was there someone else feeding the Chinese vital information about the W88 warhead? If such a person was found, he was neither named nor prosecuted.)
By the spring of 2002 it was time for Sanchez to wrap up at DOE, and his old friend Cohen went to see him. Cohen wanted him to join his shop at the NYPD in a very particular capacity. The deal struck with Langley would detail Sanchez to the NYPD to be "the CIA's guy in New York City on terrorism," as one of his colleagues put it. This would be in addition to anything the CIA was doing with the JTTF, where relationships were still "in the process of building, changing, evolving, whatever," according to the same cop. Sanchez's job was to provide the New York City Police with everything they needed to know to make their program effective, including "all the detainee debriefings." "Do you know what Larry means to me?" Cohen told one of his colleagues long afterward. "Without him in those days, I would have had nothing, nothing to show Kelly."
Through the Sanchez connection, as well as his own contacts and his own analysis, Cohen kept Kelly informed about the size, nature, evolution, and mutations of the Al Qaeda threat -- at least insofar as anyone could make them out. The ability of Bin Laden's followers to adapt and learn stunned the intelligence analysts, especially in the first two years after 9/11. "Their capacity to respond to situations was phenomenal," as one put it, and what were called "the detainee reports" seemed the only way to keep track of that evolution. "We were able to stay ahead of it in New York City," said the same analyst, "because we had access." But the information was often obscure and occasionally delphic. By way of example, Kelly recalled, "We had 'the bridge in the Godzilla movie.' "
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