NYPD vs. FBI — and both against al Qaeda

enemies_withinEnemies Within: Inside the NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit and Bin Laden’s Final Plot Against America

by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman
Simon and Schuster, 2013
306 pages, hardcover, $27.99

Competing Incompetence

With a journalist’s love of detail and a cinematic sense of narrative, Enemies Within tracks two stories unfolding concurrently. One is that of the NYPD Intelligence Division’s rapid expansion following the September 11 attacks. The other is Najibullah Zazi’s efforts to launch a smaller, follow-up attack on al Qaeda’s behalf. The book moves between these, like a spy thriller, to heighten dramatic tension — but just as often it creates a sense of absurd futility as well. The effect is sometimes more Joseph Heller than John Le Carré.

In one particularly memorable scene, Zazi has taken off on a nearly non-stop cross-country trip, from Colorado to New York. He knows he’s been outed and is fleeing in a panic; the authorities don’t know that, however, and they think he’s initiating his attack. The FBI coordinates a massive two-day, multi-agency, interstate tracking operation, and decides to stop him at a roadblock — intended to look like a routine sobriety checkpoint — before he enters New York. Here’s how that unfolds:

“The plan was for the Port Authority to start randomly stopping cars, to put on a bit of a show, and then politely ask Zazi to pull over, too. As Zazi worked his way through traffic and toward the tollbooth on the New Jersey side of the bridge, the surveillance cars behind him signaled to the Port Authority cops waiting on the bridge.

‘Red Impala. Arizona plates, DX 4015.’

The bridge cops could not find Zazi among the sea of cars. The surveillance team called out his position, counting out traffic lanes from the right. Again there was no confirmation from the bridge. The voice on the radio became more urgent. ‘Red Impala.’ Still nothing.

The officers on the bridge were counting lanes from their right, facing oncoming traffic. The surveillance team, however, was counting lanes from its right, headed toward the tolls. They were looking at opposite sides of the highway.”

In desperation, they blocked the tolls completely, stopping all traffic and singling Zazi out specifically. “So much for the carefully crafted ruse.” A cop circled his car, peered into the windows, saw nothing, and called for a dog. The dog circled the car, and also found nothing. They waved him on. There was still another snafu ahead though: The port police failed to swab the car and test for explosives, as the FBI had asked — and they also forgot to tell the FBI that they hadn’t performed the test. Whoops.

That’s not the way things happen on Law and Order. But in real life, terrorism and counter-terrorism are often not a match of wits between hardened, highly-skilled extremists and tireless, methodical detectives. Instead, there is an over-eager kid with some half-baked theocratic views on one side and some middle-aged, career-focused bureaucrats on the other — each secretly terrified that they’re in over their heads. The metaphor it brings to mind is not two master strategists gazing intently across a chess board, but two sets of drunk frat boys stumbling down a steep, muddy slope in a three-legged race. In practice the war on terror, like so much of politics, is a contest to see which side can manage to be the least incompetent. It is partly a test of skill, and partly a measure of luck, but mostly it’s just a matter of falling down somewhat less spectacularly than the other fellow.

In this case, it is the terrorist who blunders the worst. The plot is foiled, Zazi goes to jail, the cops declare victory. The point, however, is that the outcome had almost nothing to do with the efforts of the NYPD’s super-secret spy squad.

Inside Intel

The NYPD’s Intelligence Division has a $60 million annual budget and about 600 officers. Headed by a former CIA agent, David Cohen, it has run operations far outside of the five boroughs, in other states and even in other countries. Under the guidance of CIA advisor Larry Sanchez,

“Cohen charted a new course. . . one that preemptively investigated neighborhoods, ethnic groups, organizations, mosques, and business. The NYPD named it ‘zone defense,’ after the sports strategy in which a player guards a portion of the field rather than a specific man. To pull it off, the NYPD wanted to identify terrorists early. Not just before they launched an attack. . . [but] before they picked targets, before they bought weapons, and ideally, before a toxic ideology took root. Cohen wanted to know whether you were going to be a terrorist before you knew yourself.”

Sanchez designed the counter-terror system modeled on Israeli operations in the West Bank. It strives for precise mapping of the city’s Muslim communities, beginning with demographic information drawn from census data, building toward detailed files on every Mosque, business, and other institution, and then identifying key individuals and diagramming the relationships between them. To this end, it employs “rakers” — undercover officers who hang out at restaurants, cafes, and bookstores listening to what people say, partly to get a sense of community sentiment and partly to try to identify potential militants. Rakers average four reports a day, and their files include everything from the content of conversations to fliers on bulletin boards, to whether al Jazeera was on the television, to where you can buy fake IDs. The NYPD also recruited “listening posts” — paid informers from the neighborhood, often low-level offenders working off charges — to visit possible radical sites and report back. Some of these were “mosque crawlers,” who specialized in reporting on sermons, religious officials, and the ethnicities of congregants.

A 2006 Intelligence Division presentation showed that, through these efforts, they had catalogued 250 mosques according to ethnicity, leadership, and affiliation, identifying 53 “mosques of interest” and 138 individual “persons of interest.” Cohen’s goal was to have an informer inside every mosque within 250 miles of New York City.

Meanwhile, each morning, the division’s Demographics Unit receives a list of all the arrests that occurred in the previous 24 hours. They identify prisoners with “ancestries of interest” and interrogate them about extremism — but also about things like where to get a cheap room or a fake ID, English-language lessons, and gyms where Muslims work out. Nothing the Demographics Unit has learned has ever led to an arrest.

The seeming pointlessness of their jobs breeds frustration, discouragement, and cynicism. A joke developed: “This is Intel. We don’t make cases. We make overtime.” After a while the rakers started prioritizing investigations into the restaurants that served the best food.

Cops or Spies?

Painting the NYPD as strategically misguided, the authors, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, give most of the credit for the Zazi bust to the FBI, and to some degree Enemies Within can be read as a sustained argument against the NYPD-style “intelligence” approach to counter-terrorism, and in favor of the FBI-style “law enforcement” approach. That may be a tempting conclusion, from a civil liberties perspective. The idea is that the FBI succeeded where the NYPD failed, not despite the Bureau’s legal constraints and exterior oversight, but because of them. It would seem to follow that law enforcement bodies work best when they focus on enforcing the law.

Of course, such an argument only makes sense if we ignore certain key facts about the FBI, including, more or less, its entire history. Since J. Edgar Hoover helped to orchestrate the 1919 Palmer Raids, the Bureau of Investigation has served as America’s political police force and internal intelligence agency. Its record of legal, and even Constitutional, breaches — exemplified by COINTELPRO, the now-infamous but then-secret Counter-Intelligence Program of 1956-1971 — extends right up to the present. For instance, an Inspector General’s report released in 2010 concluded that the FBI improperly investigated members of several groups, including Greenpeace, the Catholic Worker, the Thomas Merton Center (“Pittsburgh’s peace and social justice center”), and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Furthermore, the NYPD’s approach actually resembles that of the feds pretty closely. “Listening posts,” for example, were invented (and named) as part of the FBI’s Ghetto Informant Program, intended to head off unrest during the Black Power period. And the FBI began using demographic profiles to target surveillance in 2003, the same year the New York Police started up their Demographic Unit. As Apuzzo and Goldman note,

“domain management [was] a process in which FBI officers nationwide compiled information on communities and assessed where terrorists might emerge. Like the NYPD, the FBI began with census data. It could then overlay other data — crimes, information locations, potential targets — and create maps of neighborhoods. It used that information to find informants, assess threats, and decide where to conduct outreach to community leaders.”

And finally, we should remember that, though the feds may have scored a clean goal in the Zazi case that has hardly been the overall pattern for their terrorism investigations. As Trevor Aaronson documents in The Terror Factory:

“According to government and federal court records, the Justice Department has prosecuted more than 500 terrorism defendants since 9/11. Of these cases, only a few posed actual threats to people or property. . . . [M]ore than 150 were caught conspiring not with terrorists but with FBI informants in sting operations. The remainder of the Justice Department’s post-9/11 terrorism prosecutions involved crimes such as money laundering or immigration violations in which the link to terrorism was tangential or on another continent, and no evidence in these cases suggested credible safety threats to the United States.”

Underestimating Intelligence

On the other half of the scale, it is also possible that Apuzzo and Goldman are underestimating the efficacy of the NYPD’s spy operations. They note that the Intelligence Division is compiling vast amounts of information about perfectly innocent people, but has not delivered a single prosecutable case. Fair enough. But what if it isn’t Intel’s job to build cases or interrupt bomb plots? They are, after all, the intelligence division. They specialize in collecting information; what happens to that information may well be someone else’s responsibility.

So what does happen to that information? The authors strongly suggest that the present answer is “nothing.” If that’s true then it would definitely represent an organizational failure and a wasted opportunity. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the cops are being foolish or irrational in collecting it, though. Writing in a Rand report on information dominance in counterinsurgency, Martin Libicki suggests that it is necessary both to collect “information on specific individuals” and also on entire populations — “in which the actions or opinions of thousands, perhaps even millions, of people are highlighted.” He identifies five purposes for such information: First, “the geographic amalgamation of personal information can help better characterize the neighborhoods” and thus prove useful for “sweeps, roadblocks, or arrests.” Second, “the amalgamation of personal information helps in gaining the broader macro picture” with which “to gauge progress” in the campaign. Third, information is important for “the provision of public services,” both in terms of social services and routine policing. “Fourth, such information provides a start in distinguishing the insurgents apt to hide within the population, from the rest of the population.” And finally, “information about individuals may be necessary to persuade each one to help the government rather than helping the insurgents” — in other words, winning “cooperation” through blackmail and coercion.

It is hard to predict the shelf life of such information, too. Incriminating or embarrassing details discovered today may form the basis of a prosecution, a smear job, or a blackmail campaign years or even decades from now — especially if the subject’s convictions have cooled, his connections weakened, and his commitments shifted during the intervening time. Saving such information — watching and waiting rather than attacking — may be a strategic decision.

Of course, I have no way of knowing what the NYPD is doing with their steadily-growing mountain of data. And I doubt the authors know either. But if the answer really is “nothing,” that’s not because such information has no use. It probably has more to do with the structure of the Intelligence Division and the office politics that have shaped it.

Intel is, by design, practically a separate agency that just happens to be housed at One Police Plaza. It is largely sealed off from the rest of the department, and almost entirely autonomous. It is, in a sense, a secret police — and it keeps its secrets even from the other police. The obsession with secrecy, though, and the institutional independence that makes it possible, may mean that the information they collect never reaches the people who could use it. If so, then the FBI’s success in the Zazi case may not be down to good old-fashioned police work and respect for Constitutional principles, and may have come about instead because the feds have connected with other police agencies, and share information through a constellation of Fusion Centers and coordinating operations through local/federal Joint Terrorism Task Forces.

The difference, then, between the NYPD and the FBI would not be the difference between intelligence and law enforcement, but between independence and networking.

Insights and Oversights

Enemies Within is an engaging and informative book, rich in detail and supplying some surprising revelations.

The book includes a fair amount of historical background, recounting the creation of the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force to target the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), the infiltration of the New York chapter of the Black Panthers almost from its start, eventually leading to the Panther 21 conspiracy case, the CIA’s Project Chaos, which sought out foreign influence in the New Left, and Seymour Hersh’s exposé of Chaos and the creation of the Church Committee, which ultimately led to some short-lived but meaningful constraints on the government’s ability to spy on its citizens.

There are also some interesting details of tradecraft, though the book never succumbs to the temptation toward fanboy-like technical geekery. For example, several pages describe the FBI’s procedure and difficulty in tracking a car on a long trip: There’s the obvious challenge of keeping the car in sight while not being spotted yourself. But you also need to note anyone the driver makes contact with — at gas stations, rest stops, etc. — and decide at the moment whether to divert some of your people to follow them as well. Likewise, if the target uses a pay phone, the next person to use the phone should be an FBI agent, requesting a trace. (Keep this is mind, if you suspect you’re being followed.)

The book also provides some interesting detail on al Qaeda’s operations: It shows that it is possible for an American with no personal connections or prior contacts to fly into Pakistan, hitchhike across the border, and sign up for a terrorist mission; and then, that their training is as much a matter of intimidating new recruits as indoctrinating them. We learn that al Qaeda is strangely unimaginative with its code words and not particularly secure in its communications. And we see that they had no functional Plan B in case their operative lost his nerve, changed his mind, or got caught. That sort of detail is a good antidote to the “evil genius” portrait often projected by US propaganda.

Likewise, the book’s description of petty office politics, bureaucratic dysfunction, chronic miscommunication, and extra-legal (or outright illegal) dodginess also supplies a nice counter to either the Jack Bauer or the Big Brother images of the capabilities of the American security state.

Where the book falters, however, is in its understanding of the politics of policing, and in particular the policing of politics.

Police Purposes

Apuzzo and Goldman assume that the purpose of a police force is to fight crime. If that’s the case, then compiling dossiers full of details about quotidian conversations, prayer groups, and “for rent” fliers can only be a waste of resources. If, on the other hand, the purpose of a police force is related to the political management of a population, that information may be useful to police in exactly the way that it is useful to an anthropologist. The point is not (or not just) to catch bad guys, but to understand how the community operates, where its power is and its pressure points are, so that it can be effectively controlled. It is commonly said that counterinsurgency is armed social work, but it would be just as accurate to say that it is armed social science.

And — even if the information collected is largely irrelevant, it is still possible that the surveillance is useful in itself. For the knowledge that one is always under scrutiny may have a disciplining effect on the individual, breed suspicion within the community, silence opposition, and disrupt any attempts to organize resistance. “The Muslim community is marbled by fear and isolation,” Apuzzo and Goldman write. “Worshippers are afraid to congregate. Young men worry that growing beards will attract police attention. People fear that talking politics, marching in protests, or attending academic lectures will land them in police files. They believe this because it happens.”

Of course repression may also breed resentment, alienation, and hostility. So the balance between coercion and legitimacy is a delicate one, and one the state is always struggling to maintain.

The NYPD tried to maintain it by keeping its spying secret. But secrecy comes at a cost. Afraid of compromising its security, Intel failed to pass information to the people who could use it to build cases. The division’s detectives grew frustrated, and became cynical. They started just going through the motions, running up large expense accounts, and turning in sloppy work. Secrecy did as much to undermine their operations as to protect them. And in the end, not even the secrecy held.

Article written by

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination, and Hurt: Notes on Torture in a Modern Democracy. He is also one of the editors of Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency. His work has appeared in Clamor, Counterpunch, the Monthly Review, Toward Freedom, and In These Times.

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