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Thursday July 12, 2012

The NYPD’s Dubious Counterterrorism Record

Posted by Frank Matt at 12:17 pm

The NYPD has for months been facing mounting criticism of it counterterrorism tactics, stemming from the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Associated Press into the NYPD’s spying program on Arab Americans and American Muslims. The most common defense by supporters of the NYPD’s tactics has been the vague claim that the NYPD has thwarted no less than 14 terrorism plots since September 11th, 2001. The claim has been repeated frequently by journalists and pundits in the media. The “14 thwarted plots” defense has even been adopted by members of Congress such as Peter King, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly himself. The claim, when given in defense of the NYPD, is never followed by evidence or elaboration into the specific plots and the NYPD’s actual role in disrupting them. Now it appears as though the NYPD and its supporters will never again be able to use the “14 thwarted plots” argument in their defense, as a recent investigative piece from ProPublica has turned the claim on its head as an exaggeration bordering on fabrication.

ProPublica’s review of the NYPD’s list of thwarted terrorism plots reveals a substantial exaggeration of both the number of serious plots against the city and the NYPD’s role in disrupting them. The NYPD’s list contains only three clear-cut terrorist plots. Of the 11 other cases, there are three in which the federal government’s role far exceeded any involvement of the NYPD, and four cases whose seriousness has been widely questioned, including cases in which federal officials declined to bring charges. In another four cases, an idea for an “attack” was never pursued beyond its initial vague discussion by the plotters. The NYPD itself did not play a major role in breaking up most of the plots on the list. In several notable cases involving serious plots, it played no role at all or had an adverse effect on the investigation.

While the NYPD’s beefing up of its claims with non-plots and dismissed cases is problematic, the most odious falsifications are the inclusion of the three serious, fully formed plots against the city among its counterterrorism successes. A breakdown of these cases reveals why their citation on the NYPD’s list of thwarted plots represents an troubling distortion of the truth:

Najibullah Zazi is an Afghani immigrant who was plotting to set off a bomb in the New York subway system. The plot was uncovered by federal officials and Zazi was being pursued by a FBI task force. Far from thwarting the plot, the NYPD intelligence division actually significantly interfered with the FBI task force investigation. Without consulting the task force, the NYPD’s Intelligence Division enlisted a Queens imam to help develop information about Zazi, who proceeded to tip off Zazi that he was a suspect, damaging the federal government’s case.

The 2006 Transatlantic Plot was a substantially-developed plan to blow up North American-bound planes that was thwarted by British authorities. While one of the planned flights was headed for New York, the NYPD had no role whatsoever in the detection or disruption of the plot. Furthermore, the NYPD has frequently complained that they were not consulted on this case and that no information was shared with them. It takes a peculiar audacity from the NYPD to protest publicly its lack of involvement in a case and then cite the same case as a counterterrorism success.

Faisal Shahzad failed in 2010 to set off a crude car bomb in Times Square. The plot was not detected by the NYPD, nor did they play a role in his capture after the failed attempt. The incident was decried universally as a police failure, but is now a part of the NYPD’s claims of counterterrorism success.

Americans should be concerned that the NYPD is falsifying its record of counterterrorism successes. The exaggerations are particularly offensive because they are used to justify dramatic rollbacks of the civil liberties of all Americans. The Associated Press revealed the abject failure of the NYPD to safeguard our liberties, and now ProPublica has revealed that the NYPD has not a single tangible counterterrorism success to show for it. Responding to the ProPublica report, Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated that “we’ll never know” how many terrorism plots the NYPD has truly stopped. Thus, supporters of the NYPD’s counterterrorism tactics are now asked to rely on the most nebulous of possible arguments. On the other hand, the NYPD’s critics can point to a mountain of empirical evidence and personal accounts of the damaging effects of the NYPD’s spying program on the lives and liberty of ordinary Americans. 

Tagged as Issues, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, NYPD, Profiling

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