05.08.10

All Those Times Square Heroes

It's a miracle we caught Faisal Shahzad, given the law-enforcement bureaucracy, phalanx of self-righteous politicians and hype-artist journalists the sleuths had to get through.

I consider myself a hero of sorts in the Times Square bombing episode. I was in New York that night, convalescing from various ailments and surgeries, to be sure, but I was there. I didn't flee to the safety of the Hamptons or Connecticut like all of the socialist-loving investment bankers.

Obviously, I wasn't as heroic as the Times Square heroes themselves. The veteran T-shirt vendor didn't just sit there, like the stolen watch vendor, and do nothing. When the vet saw the smoke billowing from a grungy automobile, he heroically hailed a mounted policeman who, with cool heroism, buzzed headquarters. All these heroes and others weren't there by luck.

The press reported that Faisal was apprehended either before he boarded the aircraft or after it taxied, or after entering Taliban airspace, or in Dubai or Tel Aviv, before or after.

George W. Bush put them there long ago on a tip from Dick Cheney. Same for the policeman's undercover horse, code named "Brownie," as I think Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell let slip.

And where was President Obama during this crisis? As Republican leaders noted, he was mostly doing nothing about the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, pursuing peace and health care at any price, and launching our preciously limited supply of drones against Pakistani mountains.

Republicans and Tea Baggers saw right through Obama's grand design here. It was to take America's eye off America and put it on the newsy drone attacks against alleged Taliban in Pakistan - thus leaving no drones for the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda here at home, especially in Connecticut, where many terrorists have long been known to stash themselves. Not surprisingly, the Times Square bomber resided in Bridgeport, Connecticut. A drone or two could have taken care of him before his foiled attack. Several Republican leaders heroically made this point at great personal risk.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, scores of Democrats were holding non-stop press conferences, grasping for credit in the capture of Mr. Faisal Shahzad, the confessed terrorist. They claimed that Faisal—that's what his fellow investment bankers affectionately called him—spilled his guts before being Mirandized and kept spilling afterward in gratitude for being Mirandized.

But as Republicans helpfully noted, the Democrats had over-Mirandized Faisal. "Those liberal interrogators," a Republican leader revealed, " they almost certainly did not cut off a single one of Mohammed's (or whatever his name was) fingers before Mirandizing." (There's still time, and no one has to know until the next administration's records are exhumed.)

Richard Miniter: New York’s Terror Déjà vuBut I digress from the heroes. There were thousands of them back in Washington, coordinating. And take it from someone who has become an expert on coordination by watching 24 on TV, government, law enforcement, and intelligence don't mix. Every single time the CTU ( 24's Counter Terrorist Unit) coordinates with other agencies to set up a perimeter, the bad guy escapes. Without fail. Then, Jack Bauer, my Hero, nabs the culprit entirely on his own, just as our Founding Fathers hoped. (For the record, most of the Founding Fathers were also heroes.)

Thankfully, the F.B.I., C.I.A., Coast Guard, Customs, and above all, our beloved New York City Policy Department forgot about their perimeters and ran Faisal to ground. Then, enter the journalistic heroes: the crack TV reporters, providing second-to-second hard information. In what resembled a journalistic perimeter, they reported that Faisal was apprehended either before he boarded the aircraft or after it taxied, or after entering Taliban airspace, or in Dubai or Tel Aviv, before or after. Many of these heroic reports were exclusives. Bigger kudos still go to the TV anchors. They doggedly pressed reporters for information the latter either were hiding from the public to preserve exclusivity or couldn't begin to possess. ("What was Faisal's nickname at Goldman Sachs or wherever he worked?") The anchors also proved essential to Mr. Faisal's capture by constantly identifying him as a 40-something, white American, who changed out of his "I love terrorists" t-shirt into his "I love Democrats" one, but still had his terrorist t-shirt in a bag. Thanks as well to the heroism of the TV counter-terrorism experts. They explained in considerable detail why the bomb didn't work and how to make it work better next time.

Just this Thursday, no kidding, House Republicans, including leader John Boehner and some guy named "Buck" called the hard work of the FBI, CIA, Coast Guard, Customs and NYPD all luck—and heroically warned that the nation couldn't depend on luck next time. Obviously, the Obama team should have picked him up a year ago when he defaulted on his house loan.

Mr. Obama was also a hero of sorts to me. He phoned and thanked all the Times Square heroes - the vet T-shirt vendor, the mounted policeman, the horse, the stolen-watch vendor. He wanted to ensure that in these Homeric days of countless heroes, that the heroes of Times Square would not be forgotten.

P.S. To readers with very low or very high scores on the SAT's who misinterpret everything: Yes, I cherish the real heroes of this story in law enforcement and intelligence. Let's not demean them or real American heroism.

P.P.S. Acknowledgement of two last-minute heroes: Joe Lieberman, for proposing that those American citizens accused or suspected of hurting or wanting to hurt America be instantly stripped of their citizenship. And Lindsey Graham, for closing a loophole unforeseen by Lieberman--namely, that even if the accused is stripped of citizenship, he or she still retain his or her Second Amendment rights to buy guns, hand grenades, and tanks.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.