Counterterrorism And The NYPD

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other officials have claimed that the NYPD has prevented 14 terrorist attacks in the city since Sept. 11. ProPublica reporter Justin Elliot recently "fact-checked" this claim and found that most of these attacks weren't even threats. The ones that were, the NYPD had little to do with stopping. Weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz speaks with Elliot about the NYPD's counterterrorism record.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

New York officials have often cited a key statistic about the New York Police Department's famed counterterrorism unit. Here's Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: We have stopped 14 attacks since 9/11.

RAZ: Fourteen attacks thwarted by the NYPD since 9/11. Not likely, according to an investigation by ProPublica reporter Justin Elliott. To the contrary, he found many of those supposed threats weren't even real.

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: When you scratch beneath the surface on these cases, there's just not a lot there. To give an example, there was the attempted car bombing in Times Square a couple of years ago by a Pakistani-American named Faisal Shahzad. But, of course, in that case, the car bomb failed to go off because of Shahzad's incompetence as a bomb maker. And it was widely seen, really, as a law enforcement failure. I mean, the NYPD didn't stop it. No one stopped it. They arrested him after this smoking SUV was left in Times Square.

RAZ: So you've written that in addition to the Faisal Shahzad case, which Commissioner Kelly - he actually claims that his police department thwarted that attack?

ELLIOTT: Well, they've said that they've thwarted or helped thwart 14 attacks. There's four on the lists that never got beyond a discussion. So, for example, they talk about a convert to Islam named Bryant Neal Vinas, and he was brought to trial here in the U.S. and said that he had a discussion with an al-Qaida member about an idea he had to set off bombs on the Long Island railroad.

But no action was ever taken. The idea was never pursued. So that so-called plot really only existed as a discussion. The NYPD didn't thwart it. No one thwarted it because it didn't exist to the extent that it could be thwarted.

RAZ: Out of those 14 plots, how many would you say were truly thwarted by the NYPD?

ELLIOTT: Unless you consider the plots in which informants were playing a significant or dominant role, it's hard to even really find one that was thwarted by the NYPD. I mean, it's in the very low digits or zero.

RAZ: So after your reporting came out questioning, you know, claims made by the NYPD, the police commissioner Raymond Kelly had this to say.

RAYMOND KELLY: After a plot is thwarted, always somebody would say, no, it couldn't happen, or, you know, he didn't have the mental capacity to do it. Of course, if something happens, then it's our fault. So you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

RAZ: Does he have a point there? I mean, how could you know these plots were just figments of people's imaginations or if they may really have been acted on?

ELLIOTT: Well, it's true, of course, that the NYPD is going to be held accountable for the safety of the city, but I think there really should be an honest accounting here. I mean, it has all sorts of implications for resource allocation, for the question of how serious is the terrorist threat against New York really and, of course, for the question of how effective is the NYPD's counterterrorism operations.

RAZ: That's ProPublica reporter Justin Elliott. He recently wrote an article about the NYPD's claims that it has thwarted 14 terrorist attacks since 9/11. His report has called those claims into question. Justin Elliott, thanks so much.

ELLIOTT: Thank you.

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