In last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, Judith Miller had an interview about terror prevention with New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. It offers some useful insight on the NYPD’s efforts anti-terrorism efforts. But I wanted to highlight one particular point right at the beginning of the piece:
What rankles Raymond W. Kelly? Two things, he tells me as we sip lukewarm coffee in his conference room on the 14th floor of One Police Plaza, the dilapidated police headquarters overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge.
The first, New York’s police commissioner tells me, is “incompetence,” an inescapable fact-of-life, or so it would seem, in any large bureaucracy (he has 50,000 employees).
A second is the media’s tendency to downplay New York’s hard-won victories against terrorism—the failure or foiling of some 11 serious plots against the city since 2001—by describing the would-be perpetrators as incompetent or stupid (my italics).
Faisal Shahzad, who was indicted on Thursday for trying to blow up his SUV in Times Square last month, was not a stupid bumbler, Mr. Kelly says. “The people who interviewed, interrogated him said he is very smart, and has a very keen memory.” Federal law enforcement officials say they are making good use of that memory, using information he’s been providing to help target terrorist recruiters, handlers and facilitators in Pakistan, where Mr. Shahzad went for training.
So why did Mr. Shahzad buy fertilizer that wouldn’t detonate? “He was forced to do . . . things . . . that reduced the potency of his device,” Mr. Kelly says, because “it’s hard to get explosive materials in this country.” That “led him to try to substitute materials.”
Earlier this month Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, were arrested at JFK International Airport. They were en route to Somalia with the stated intention of joining an Islamic extremist group to kill American troops there. Yet a profile in the New York Times quoted anonymous friends who described them as “hapless blowhards, more pathetic than perilous.”
Kelly’s complaint to Miller about the media portraying terrorists as the ‘gang that couldn’t shoot straight’ to the public is similar to one he made to the author Chris Dickey last year in the book Securing The City. At that time, I recommended that Kelly and other law enforcement officials needed to be more open and candid about the seriousness of the terror threat if they want the media and the public to take it equally seriously.
Officials like Kelly are understandably concerned about (or being accused of) ‘fearmongering’ by talking too much about terrorism. However, when the government won’t talk about the terror threat then it shouldn’t be surprised if there are misperceptions in the media and public. But I would argue that by developing an ongoing, honest and transparent (when possible) dialogue would help address Kelly’s concern about the media and the public laughing off terrorism.