President Barack Obama called New York police Commissioner Ray Kelly to thank him for his efforts in thwarting a planned terrorist attack on the city’s subway system, which counterterrorism experts describe as the most serious terror plot since 9/11. But Obama should have also thanked his predecessor in the White House.
The arrest and indictment of Najibullah Zazi on charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction was made possible by the “roving wiretaps” allowed by the Patriot Act, which was signed into law in 2001 by President George W. Bush. “All the layers of defense President Bush set up after Sept. 11 are working,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., pointed out. The Patriot Act caused plenty of controversy, but it was key to the Bush administration’s successful eight-year counterterrorism strategy that focused on disrupting terror attacks and thereby preventing the deaths of more Americans here at home.
Even the FBI’s investigation into the 24-year-old airport shuttle driver began on Bush’s watch. Agents tracked the Afghan native (and legal resident of the U.S.) when he traveled to the tribal areas of Pakistan last year, where he allegedly learned how to make bombs from al-Qaida operatives. Nine pages of handwritten formulas for homemade explosives, fuses and detonators were later found on his laptop, e-mailed from an Internet account originating in Pakistan, court documents say.
This is exactly the kind of foreign communications the Patriot Act was designed to intercept.
After purchasing “unusually large quantities of hydrogen peroxide and acetone products from beauty supply stores” in Denver this summer, Zazi allegedly asked an unnamed individual on Sept. 6 to give him “the correct mixtures of ingredients to make explosives” before leaving acetone residue in a Colorado hotel room. Tailed by the FBI, he rented a car and drove to New York, where his fingerprints were reportedly found on batteries and a scale in a Queens home that law enforcement officials raided Sept. 14.
Also indicted in the subway bombing plot was Queens imam Ahmad Wais Afzali, who warned Zazi in a call intercepted by the FBI around Sept. 11 that he was under investigation, thus forcing officials to speed up the arrest. Again, this wiretap is exactly the kind of domestic communications the Patriot Act was designed to intercept in the effort to prevent new bloodshed.
Many questions remain, including the size of Zazi’s terror network and whether he has any association with the Taliban. But we already know what could have happened if the FBI lacked the tools it needed to interrupt the plot. Or what could happen in the future if key provisions of the Patriot Act, set to expire Dec. 31, are not renewed by the president and Congress.