PLAYBOY: The New York Times called the City Council’s decision to increase stop-and-frisk oversight “a stinging personal defeat for Mayor Bloomberg.” What do you call it?
KELLY: I call it a defeat for the citizens of New York City. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that if you stop or curtail stop-and-frisk, or if cops are reluctant to do it, violent crimes are going to go up.
PLAYBOY: Has this whole subject given you agita?
PLAYBOY: You don’t feel aggravated?
KELLY: Not at all. This is my business.
PLAYBOY: President Obama gave an impromptu speech last July that focused on the realities of growing up black in America, how Trayvon Martin could have been him 35 years ago. Some view stop-and-frisk as an institutional version of what Obama was describing.
KELLY: I know this is a sensitive issue to the African American community. I would point out that the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman encounter was between two private citizens. It didn’t have to do with the stop-and-frisk issue directly. But I realize it was an event that people rallied around. They believe the judicial system isn’t fair, and in many people’s minds the Trayvon Martin case was the manifestation of this unfairness.
PLAYBOY: What was New York like back in 2002, when your current term began?
KELLY: The Bloomberg administration came in just three and a half months after 9/11, and there was all sorts of gloom and doom in the press. It wasn’t a question of if New York was going to be attacked again by terrorists, it was when. It wasn’t a question of if crime was going to go up, it was by how much. It was a pessimistic time. Expecting more mayhem to break out, people were leaving the city. The traffic in Times Square was so light I could drive from there to downtown in 12 minutes. No traffic. It was as if New York had been evacuated.
PLAYBOY: A semi–ghost town.
KELLY: Yes. New York City was the number one target in America—and it still is. I knew we had to create our own counterterrorism operation, since the federal government alone couldn’t protect us. So we brought in high-level officials from the FBI, CIA and Marines and created a cadre of first-class intelligence analysts. We deploy more than 1,000 officers to counterterrorism duties every day, and we have NYPD officers assigned in 11 foreign cities.
PLAYBOY: Wouldn’t the FBI, CIA and NSA have been enough to rely on?
KELLY: No. We’ve been attacked here twice and the federal government did not protect the city, though it may have had good intentions. We know now that one of the reasons the terrorists weren’t intercepted on 9/11 was due to a lack of cooperation—and communication—between the FBI and the CIA.
PLAYBOY: How many attacks have been averted in 12 years?
KELLY: Sixteen—including the Brooklyn Bridge, the New York Stock Exchange, Times Square, Herald Square, the subway system and JFK airport.
PLAYBOY: You say you sleep well, but what one fear could keep you up at night?
KELLY: Obviously the major concern, though it’s the least probable one, with the greatest consequences, would be nuclear detonation or a dirty bomb with radiological material.
PLAYBOY: Are there any preventive measures against it?
KELLY: Yes. We have a radiation-detection plan that includes radiation equipment on police officers, on helicopters and on our boats.
PLAYBOY: If a plane flying above us had a nuclear bomb onboard, could you detect it?
KELLY: No, I wouldn’t say that. We’re looking for nuclear devices coming in by land or by ship.
PLAYBOY: On a visceral level, you must hate these terrorists.
KELLY: On one level, yes, but protecting the city is my job, which doesn’t translate into hatred. This is war, and in most wars, professional soldiers don’t hate the enemy. Hatred can blind you in ways that mar your judgment.
PLAYBOY: If the city should come under attack, could you manage the emergency response from your SUV?
KELLY: Well, yes, we hope so. We have a lot of phones, a fax machine, satellite television, bullet-resistant vests.
PLAYBOY: Is it bomb-resistant?
KELLY: Both the body of the car and the doors are armored.
PLAYBOY: Is it true that if New York City were under attack, the NYPD could, as you mentioned in a 60 Minutes interview, actually shoot down a plane?
KELLY: One of our concerns is that a crop duster could take off from a field in New Jersey, fly over Manhattan and distribute a material such as anthrax. What could we do? Would we wait for a fighter jet to be marshaled? No. So we procured semiautomatic 50-caliber rifles, the most powerful rifle you can get. Now we have the capability to shoot down a small, slow-moving plane from our helicopters.
PLAYBOY: But could you stop a jet that is on the attack?
KELLY: No, not a jet that is going 550 miles an hour.
PLAYBOY: Looking back at that day when two planes flew into the Twin Towers, did you ever think those buildings could fall the way they did?
KELLY: No, never. I remember when I was police commissioner the first time, sitting in the basement of the World Trade Center on the night of February 26, 1993. Terrorists had detonated a van bomb there that afternoon. An engineer was telling me, “This building could never come down.” That bombing should have been a huge wake-up call for the country, and it wasn’t.
PLAYBOY: Why not?
KELLY: It was dismissed in some quarters as an act of amateurs. I’m not certain who you put the ultimate blame on, but the reality was we didn’t learn many lessons from it.
PLAYBOY: On the morning of 9/11, you were working in private industry, at Bear Stearns. What do you remember?
KELLY: I was in the executive dining room when somebody came in and told me a small plane had hit the World Trade Center. I went up to the highest floor of a nearby building and stood there watching the whole thing. When I saw the first tower crumble, I thought back to what that engineer told me. A few weeks later, my wife, Veronica, and I stood on the roof of our apartment building right across the street from ground zero. Veronica was crying, and I was stunned by the enormity of the devastation. A large part of our neighborhood was literally gone. Total devastation. The magazine stand we went to across the street vanished. Standing up there that day was a moment of clarity for me.
PLAYBOY: So after Bloomberg was elected, you accepted the offer to return as police commissioner.
KELLY: I realized this was war, and I didn’t want to be on the sidelines. I wanted to get back into the game.
PLAYBOY: Republican Pete King, the chair of the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, recently said, “Al Qaeda is in many ways stronger than it was before 9/11 because it has mutated and spread.” Do you agree?
KELLY: I don’t disagree. We know that core Al Qaeda, headquartered in tribal areas of Pakistan, has been degraded significantly as a result of drone strikes. But surrogates of the franchise have sprung up in the Arabian Peninsula, in northern Africa—Libya, Tunisia—and in Iraq and Syria.
PLAYBOY: What you’re saying seems to cast doubt on President Obama’s claims that Al Qaeda has been “decimated” and is “on the path to defeat,” statements he has made 32 times since the attack in Benghazi.
KELLY: We believe we’re going to be confronting Al Qaeda for a long time to come. It seems to be able to regroup, rebound and spread its reach to other continents.
PLAYBOY: Then why is Obama giving this more optimistic viewpoint?
KELLY: The threat is still very much with us, strong, if not stronger than it was in 2001. Al Qaeda is robust.