By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON — The system worked. Authorities responded to the attempted Times Square bombing about as well as anyone possibly could — proving, once again, that viewing terrorism exclusively in a military context is wrong. It’s a police matter, too.
That Faisal Shahzad was apprehended just 53 hours after he allegedly left an explosives-packed SUV at Manhattan’s teeming crossroads really is the stuff of a cinematic thriller. As New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly suggested, only fictional terrorist-hunter Jack Bauer of Fox’s “24” could have done it better. And unlike Bauer, the real-life police officers and FBI agents who cracked the case didn’t even have to torture anyone.
The whole incident proves the value of old-fashioned — and newfangled — police work in countering the terrorist threat. New York beat cops were nearby when street vendors noticed the suspicious vehicle, which was emitting popping noises and smoke. The city has a sophisticated explosives unit that was able to quickly defuse the amateurish car-bomb. From the vehicle identification number, police found the Nissan Pathfinder’s last registered owner, who had recently sold the SUV to a young man for cash.
Police and the FBI identified Shahzad by analyzing phone calls made with a disposable cell phone. Then came the only blemish on the authorities’ otherwise stellar performance: Details of the investigation began to leak to news organizations, and reporters practically raced police and the FBI to Shahzad’s Connecticut haunts, according to a National Public Radio report.
The FBI put him under surveillance, but Shahzad reportedly already knew that authorities were zeroing in on a man of Pakistani descent who lived in his neighborhood. That narrowed things down uncomfortably, and Shahzad allegedly decided to run. The FBI agents who apparently lost him in a grocery store were working at a disadvantage. Knowing he was being followed, he gave them the slip.
Shahzad’s name was added to the no-fly list, just as it should have been. If Emirates Airlines had checked an updated list, he never would have been able to board that plane headed for Dubai. But, again, the system ultimately worked: The passenger list was routinely sent to a counterterrorism center for one final look, and bingo, the FBI had its man. They arrived right after the aircraft door had closed but before the pilot had pulled away from the gate.
It was something of a diving catch. But that’s what fighting terrorism is going to be like. People try to do bad things, people try to hide, people try to escape. The reason to have redundant systems — one last check of the passenger list — is that terrorists might slip through one sieve but be caught by the next.
Shahzad was arrested and charged under civilian laws. He was questioned before being read his Miranda rights, under an appropriate public safety exception. Once Mirandized, he reportedly continued to talk. Not every accused terrorist will be as voluble, but the record of civilian interrogators in getting information out of such suspects is pretty sterling. The accused Christmas Day underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, apparently talked for a while, then went silent, then began talking again. In both cases, authorities say they have obtained valuable, actionable information.
So maybe this will silence those who scream “military tribunal” after every domestic terrorist attempt. There is no reason to believe that military interrogators would have extracted more information — or, for that matter, that military courts will be tougher on terrorist suspects. In civilian courts, history shows, prosecutors generally get what they want: convictions and tough sentences.
Does any of this vindicate Attorney General Eric Holder’s wish to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in civilian federal court? The point is moot since New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg pulled the rug from under Holder’s idea of holding the trial in lower Manhattan. The fact that Shahzad’s alleged attempt took place in New York no doubt increases the probability that the man known as KSM will be brought to justice in a military proceeding.
Should the events of the past week make us feel any safer? It is alarming that a U.S. citizen is accused of such a heinous act. There is no guarantee that the next attack will be as slipshod as the ones that Shahzad and Abdulmutallab allegedly attempted.
But alert citizens and crackerjack police work are our first line of defense — and the line is holding well.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.