Would be terrorist Najibullah Zazi has cut a deal with federal prosecutors. In his allocution last week in federal court, Zazi described his plan to carry out a "martyrdom operation" against the New York City subway system. While one can still question whether civilian plea bargaining with Zazi, a non U.S. citizen who originally traveled overseas to wage war against the U.S., is the best method for preventing future terrorist attacks; the CIA, FBI, NYPD and others deserve credit for disrupting this plot. The Zazi case teaches us once again that when it comes to protecting critical infrastructure, such as mass transit systems, intelligence is the key.
Mass transit remains among the most likely terrorist targets inside the U.S. generally and the New York City metro region in particular. Attacks in London, Madrid, Moscow, Mumbai and Tokyo, and previous plots against the New York City transit system and the New York/New Jersey Port Authority Trans-Hudson commuter train, provide stark evidence of this fact. In addition to the 2006 train bombings in Mumbai, the terrorist assault of 2008 in that city involved an attack on the transit passenger hall at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus killing fifty people.
By their very nature, mass transit systems are extremely vulnerable to attack, whether by suicide bombers, as was done in the first London bombing, or by timed improvised explosive devices in back-packs left on trains, as was done in Madrid, or by assault team, as was done in Mumbai in 2008. The reasons for this are obvious but very hard to overcome: in order to move the masses, mass transit systems must be open and free flowing to function. Due to this fact, the traditional "target hardening" of metal detectors, personnel/baggage screeners, gates, fences, cameras, sensors, bollards and other perimeter security measures are less effective or even applicable. Unlike with aviation, technology does not yet exist where we can timely baseline screen (forget secondary screening) all people and things that enter the transit system without causing the system to screech to a halt.
Even if we could baseline screen all passengers, there is little reason to believe it would be effective enough to warrant the impact on transit operations. The willingness of passengers to be inconvenienced due to screening in order to travel from New York to Los Angeles is one thing. Their willingness to go through the same screening to go from 86th Street to 59th Street on Manhattan's Upper East Side is quite another. This is not to suggest that certain "traditional" security measures should not be used. However, such measures, especially cameras and sensors, should be used as tools to collect intelligence, e.g., suspicious surveillance or probing activity, and not simply as a post event forensic tool to help determine who carried out the attack. As for passenger screening, it should be primarily intelligence driven as opposed to simply random.
Despite certain intelligence failures in the Zazi case related to understanding in real time his pre-operational logistics in the form of his taste for purchasing large quantities of nail polish remover, which contains acetone, a key ingredient for the explosive Triacetone Triperoxide, there was enough intelligence collected to thwart this plot. Going forward, Zazi teaches us there is a connection between nail polish remover and the security of America's mass transit systems. Collecting and then connecting the dots necessary to link nail polish remover to transit bombings is no easy task and requires an intelligence system capable of linking foreign travel to suspicious purchasing habits and everything else in between. However, there is no alternative if we hope to protect the virtually endless number of potential targets and especially those highly critical and vulnerable targets such as mass transit.
Had the day come for Najibullah Zazi to carry out his plot, it is very likely he would have succeeded. Perhaps he, and his co-conspirators, would have appeared as just another set of passengers with back-packs on New York's massive subway system. That is, until they and/or those back-packs unleashed a reign of explosive terror the likes of which we have not seen in the U.S. in eight years. Fortunately, we'll never know for sure, but it's a stark reminder that the key to protecting mass transit and other critical infrastructure at home is to collect actionable intelligence inside the homeland and around the world.
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It's becoming increasingly clear that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and his al-Qaeda cohorts will not be tried in New York City and may not be tried in a civilian court at all. This is welcome news to many of us, but clearly not to the Justice Department's leadership, which has been reportedly sidelined from the process of devising an alternative trial venue and forum. As we look back on the process that got us to this moment, there is a powerful lesson to be learned beyond the fact the decision on the merits was a bad one to begin with. That lesson being, federal officials should reach out and talk to state and local officials before the feds make monumental decisions that must be implemented largely by those state and local officials.
One of the most striking elements of the process that led to Attorney General Eric Holder announcing his decision to move KSM into the civilian justice system in New York was that his agency never consulted with city officials in New York, most notably the NYPD. This is truly unbelievable for the obvious reason that this was not going to be a typical trial or even a typical high profile trial for a mafia don or a drug kingpin. The trial of KSM in New York would require a security apparatus the likes of which this country had never seen before.
The NYPD's $200 million annual security bill for the trial is massive by any standard and who would not want to know that fact before making a decision on where to conduct the prosecution? Total costs have been estimated by the NYPD to be $1 billion for the life of the trial. Failure to talk to the NYPD meant the Justice Department had no idea what the security needs would be or how much direct security would cost or what the indirect costs in the form of economic impact on local businesses and the inconvenience to local residents would amount to either. These things were only "discovered" after the decision was made public and they played a big role in reversing the decision as the Justice Department had no basis to challenge the NYPD's numbers.
The Attorney General's talking to the U.S. Marshals, a Justice agency responsible for the security of federal courthouses was not sufficient. The Marshal Service's responsibility, while important, would not include the broader security that must be provided to the area surrounding the courthouse. Moreover, as the NYPD plan outlined, security for the KSM trial would be virtually city wide, encompassing counter measures for Mumbai style assault teams that would attempt to utilize the rivers to lone suicide bombers and more.
Real partnership requires coordination and collaboration. The increased security risk, as directly reflected by the $200 million in additional security the NYPD would need to provide, is something state and local officials have a right to weigh-in on. This is especially true when dealing with the unprecedented move of shipping a foreign war criminal captured overseas onto U.S. soil to stand trial in a civilian court. This does not mean state and local officials have a veto over such decisions, but rather, a voice in the process before the decision is made. While reaching out to city and state officials in New York early in the process risked having the decision to hold the trial in New York leak, would that have been any worse for Justice than where they find themselves now?
Despite trying to be good soldiers and support the decision at first, Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly eventually came to the realization that holding the trial in New York City would be a nightmare. They as much as anyone helped turn this awful decision around by simply providing the Justice Department, and all of America, with the simple facts surrounding trial security that anyone would want to know and should have known before making a decision as consequential and complicated as trying KSM in lower Manhattan. Let's hope the ongoing process that may ultimately lead to an alternative trial is a more inclusive one, yielding a more reasonable result.
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That is a question that was posed to me by the editors of Emergency Management Magazine. My answer appears in the March edition of the magazine in an article entitled Analysis: Collecting and Sharing Information Is Not Enough. The article is now available on-line. In reaching my conclusion, I spoke to a number of current and former government officials many of whom now serve in business and academia. What do you think? Are we any better at this?
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