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Other segments from the episode on February 11, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 11, 2009: Interview with Christopher Dickey; Review of Fol Chen's debut album, "Part 1, John Shade, your fortune's made."


Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Christopher Dickey: Intelligence the NYPD Way


This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross. My guest Christopher Dickey has spent 25 years reporting on international terrorism, and he says one of the most effective antiterrorism forces in the world is the New York City Police Department. In his new book, "Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force," Dickey says New York officials concluded after the September 11th attacks they couldn't rely on federal agencies to protect the city, and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has worked to build a first-class counterterror force. Among his recruits was former CIA Director of Operations David Cohen, who's given the department access to sensitive information.

Dickey's book details the methods and techniques the NYPD uses, including its reliance on the linguistic skill and cultural backgrounds of the city's ethnically diverse police force. Christopher Dickey is Newsweek's Paris bureau chief and Middle East regional editor and the author of five previous books. Well, Christopher Dickey, welcome back to Fresh Air. Let's talk about how - kind of the shape and mission of New York's counterterrorism division. How many officers are involved?

Mr. CHRISTOPHER DICKEY (Author, "Security the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force - The NYPD;" Paris Bureau Chief, Middle East Regional Editor, Newsweek Magazine): Well, there's about 1,000 officers altogether. There's two distinct parts of the NYPD that are involved in fighting terrorism. One is the counterterrorism bureau, and part of it is the counterterrorism division, which does lots of things. It runs what are called red-cell operations, where they masquerade as terrorists in order to see whether there are weaknesses in the, sort of, the protective shield around New York. It is responsible for protecting the infrastructure in New York. The tower that's going to be built or that's being built at Ground Zero now had to be completely redesigned because the head of the counterterrorism bureau said it was not going to be safe from attack. It had basic flaws. So, they have all of that going on, and some members of the counterterrorism bureau and counterterrorism division are involved with the joint terrorism taskforce of the FBI. Then there's this whole other division, the intelligence division, which has about 600 detectives in it, and that is David Cohen's division. And it is concerned...

DAVIES: He's the former CIA guy, right?

Mr. DICKEY: He's the former CIA guy. And it is concerned with gathering mainly human intelligence, talking to people, penetrating organizations and getting from them the kind of information that is needed to protect the city. And also, it's concerned with disrupting potential terrorist organizations and operations, often without actually ever arresting and booking anybody in the course of those operations.

DAVIES: Now, New York City, you know, is an ethnic melting pot. Hundreds of thousands of, you know, first-generation immigrants live there. You note that this was a real strength of the police department in building counterterrorism intelligence.

Mr. DICKEY: Actually, millions of first-generation immigrants live in New York. About 40 percent of the population of New York City, four-zero percent, was not born in the United States of America. And you can see that as a huge problem, if you want, but in fact, Kelly and Cohen saw it as, potentially, a great source of strength for their operations and what they needed to do. Because when you have a lot of first-generation immigrants, typically, especially in New York City, many of them decide that their best entry-level job in the United States is with the police force. And you had that with generations of Irish, Italians, Poles, Germans, and it's just as true today. So, the first thing that they did, when Kelly and Cohen started putting together the intelligence operations they wanted to run, was to ask for volunteers to come forward if they spoke another language. And they got about 1800 volunteers. They had them tested. They found 700 people who spoke - as native speakers - languages that were relevant to the fight against terrorists.

DAVIES: When you say volunteers, you mean people that are on the police force, right? Yeah.

Mr. DICKEY: Yeah, yeah. Volunteers, what they call white shields, cops in uniforms, guys out on the beat that, you know, happen to speak Pashto or Arabic or Dari or Bengali or Farsi. And once they were tested, all of a sudden, they looked at this and they had 700 people who can speak these languages, which were hugely in demand in 2002. You know, I think the number of graduates in Arabic from all universities and colleges in the United States in 2002, who spoke Arabic, graduated in Arabic programs, was six. So, there was a huge dearth of competent language - linguists and competent officers who spoke languages in the whole security establishment of the United States, but not in the NYPD.

DAVIES: And how did it use them in the fight against terrorism?

Mr. DICKEY: Well, in a number of different ways. Many of them went to the intelligence division, where they could work as undercover cops or as detectives on cases that involve people who spoke these languages. Others went to work on the Web, going to chat rooms, where you see all these connections internationally among different groups that are interested in carrying out violent jihad against the West. And because you'd have somebody who was born in Karachi and spoke really fluent native Urdu and knew his or her way around the streets of Karachi, they could go right past a lot of these barriers and filters set up by these groups. You know, for instance, somebody on the chat room, the manager of the chat room, will say, too bad about that mosque that burned down in such-and-such neighborhood in Karachi, and the NYPD detective who, of course, is operating under some sort of pseudonym would say, what do you mean, I was there two weeks ago, or my sister lives next to that mosque; that's not right at all. And that's the kind of barrier that you had to get through if you wanted to get into the nitty-gritty discussions about violent attacks...

DAVIES: In other words, that was a screening question to filter out cops? Yeah.

Mr. DICKEY: Absolutely a screening question. Yeah, cops, FBI, whoever.

DAVIES: So, did the NYPD, when it had all of these native speakers from areas that were of great interest to the FBI and the CIA, did they develop specific information that you knew about that either helped build a case or that the FBI needed and helped build a relationship that allowed them to get information from other agencies?

Mr. DICKEY: Well, by 2003, 2004, you have the FBI and the CIA coming to the NYPD and asking for help with foreign languages and with the intelligence product that's being generated. And there are a couple of cases that we know about that are well-documented, where, for instance, there were a couple of young guys in Brooklyn who were getting themselves all worked up about fighting against the United States and carrying out violent jihad and blowing up a subway station at Herald Square, and people in the Muslim community around them grew suspicious. Somebody called the police, and sometime not long after that, a young Bangladeshi guy shows up at the same mosque, starts going there, starts going to the bookstore where one of these conspirators worked, and he was an undercover cop. He had gone into the NYPD Police Academy, and David Cohen had spotted him, and they had pulled him out of the academy before he even graduated, sent him to live in Brooklyn under deep cover, and he only communicated with one sergeant in the intelligence division and that by email most of the time. But he thoroughly penetrated this group of guys, and eventually they were arrested, tried and convicted.

DAVIES: The interesting thing about that case, as you described it in the book, is that this young man that you described, once he gets involved, at a certain point he backs out of the case, and another confidential informant gets involved and wears a wire and gets information about these two young fellows and their jihadist plans. But it's not so clear that they would have actually done anything without, you know...

Mr. DICKEY: Well, this is...


Mr. DICKEY: Well, this is often a problem with these cases. You know, in the NYPD's own literature, they talk about the need for spiritual sanctioners and leaders for these groups of guys that may be homegrown terrorists. And there is more than one case - this is one of them - but there's more than one case in which those spiritual sanctioners and leaders turned out to be the police informants themselves. So, it's hard to tell where the police investigation ends and its influence begins. But precisely, in this case, the undercover officer was not a spiritual sanctioner. He was not the leader. He was just sitting around listening long before the confidential informant was brought on the scene. And in fact, the CI, as they call the informants, was supposed to be able to testify in court in such a way that the undercover officer would never be revealed. But when they thought they might lose the case, they brought the undercover officer in. He testified, and it was on the basis of his testimony that the conviction was won.

The point of all this is these guys were very stupid guys. They might have been harmless, but you can't rely on that. A lot of terrorists are very stupid, but they can still do a huge amount of damage, and if you have an opportunity to intercept them and to stop them, that's important. The other thing that's important is the message that was sent by this trial. These are two guys who are conspiring, and then there's three guys, then there's four guys, and the message to them is, if you're three guys who are conspiring, then one of you may well be a police informant. You can't trust anybody. And that is hugely destabilizing, and it makes it very hard to organize conspiracies, which is part of the game.

DAVIES: Christopher Dickey's new book is called "Securing the City." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Christopher Dickey. He's Newsweek's Paris bureau chief and Middle East regional editor, and he has a new book about the New York City Police Department's antiterrorism effort called "Securing the City." One of the other things the department does are these shows of force; I believe the term was "critical response vehicle surges." What are they, and what is their intended purpose?

Mr. DICKEY: Well, they - first of all, you have what you might call offensive intelligence operations, where you're really trying to get out and penetrate these organizations. But it's inevitable that you will miss something. So, you have to have defensive operations and shows of force that basically warn people off. As Ray Kelly says, there used to be a campaign in New York that said, don't even think about parking here. The message of the NYPD is, don't even think about carrying out a terrorist action here because we're everywhere all the time and we're going to be right on top of you.

Well, how do you send that message? You do it with a lot of fairly theatrical measures, and one of the most conspicuous is the one you mentioned, these critical response vehicle surges. They bring together 76 cars and they put them all in one place, at the base of the Empire State Building or downtown in Wall Street or around Lincoln Center, wherever. And they do that three times a day, every day of the week. And the effect is that if you're in those areas, you suddenly, literally, feel yourself surrounded by the police. Now, they can't know whether there's a terrorist in that environment, but sometimes there may well be people plotting and who are casing these particular high-profile targets in New York City.

And they even have one example; back in early 2003, late 2002, there was a man very close to al-Qaeda who was casing the Brooklyn Bridge, and when he went there, he kept seeing all these cops turning up unexpectedly, even in boats and helicopters, around the Brooklyn Bridge. Well, they didn't know that he was casing it, but he saw them, and eventually, he sent a note back to his handler in Pakistan, an email, and said, you know, we can't do this; the weather is just too hot here, meaning there are too many cops around.

DAVIES: You know, that strikes me as an expensive undertaking, and now with the economy - with so many state and local governments, including New York, with budget problems, are they going to be able to continue to maintain that kind of an effort?

Mr. DICKEY: Look, all of this is very expensive. I mean, you could say that the critical response vehicles are an expensive training operation. They don't describe it as a training operation, but one of the things it does is to get people who are serving in the outlying precincts familiar with operating in Manhattan and to have this force, this mobile force, that can move anywhere very quickly. But yes, the answer is, is that expensive? It is. Six hundred people in the intelligence division are expensive. The counterterrorism bureau is very expensive. All of that is extremely costly, and now that you've got budget cuts, the first place that the money is going to disappear from is not those operations; it's going to be from cops on the street. They're going to take 1,000 cops off the street. They're going to have soon 6,000 fewer cops on the street than they had in 2002, mainly because of budget cuts.

And eventually, if that results in a rise in neighborhood crime, a rise in violent crime - so far, it hasn't - but if it does, then you're going to see a situation - and they're all aware of it - in which the resources that are spent on terrorism are going to be looked at again and again and again, and eventually those resources for counterterrorism are going to be cut. Everybody knows that. So, as the tax base in New York declines, as the budget in New York declines, I think there is a real chance that some of these programs will take a hit. And of course, the longer they're successful, the longer you have a situation where there's not another successful terrorist attack on New York City, the more public pressure there is to curtail the programs. It's one of those ironies of the work.

DAVIES: One of the other things that the NYPD has done is to send officers, station them overseas. Why do that, and what's different about their role than, say, a CIA or FBI agent operating in a foreign capital?

Mr. DICKEY: Well, a CIA agent is operating in a foreign capital not only to gather information, but to recruit people who will be inside the foreign governments, who will feed secret information to the CIA. The FBI stationed its agents in many, many embassies around the world at the time when the CIA was crumbling, when it - because it wanted its own information, but it bragged that it wasn't going try to recruit anybody; it was going to work with top-level police officers and help spread the American way of life and justice. I don't know. It's a very strange program for legal attaches that they have.

The program of the NYPD is very, very simple and straightforward. Basically, it's built on the idea that cops speak the same language everywhere; they understand the way they work; they understand the business of the police. And in certain cities, where there has been a lot of terrorism - in London, in Paris, in Tel Aviv - they station cops, New York cops, there in the police headquarters. The one in Paris, where I live, for instance, has a desk in the intelligence division of the national police. He's not at an embassy. He's not leading the high life in an embassy apartment. He's right down there on the ground with the cops, day-in-day out. He speaks fluent French, and he's you know, he has dinner at their homes and goes out drinking with them.

So, as a result, he has an intimacy with the police force that can be hugely informative at critical times. France is always subject to terrorist operations, and some of them have been very similar to operations that have been, or could be carried out in the United States of America. So, that's important. And they also serve a function crime fighting and communicating that way, but their first function is to learn whatever can be learned that will help in the fight against terrorists. And then they also go to other places.

The classic case is Mumbai last year, last November, you had three New York police department detectives on the ground in Mumbai right as the siege ended, and what were they doing? They wanted to ask the New York question: What can we learn from what happened here about the tactics? The way the terrorists communicated; how they entered the hotel; how they cased the hotels; what kinds of weapons they used? All of that is relevant for New York because New York is a densely populated financial capitol on the sea - ah, just like Mumbai - and the tactics that were used there, in Mumbai, could easily be used in New York. So, they were on the ground and those detectives were reporting back to the intelligence division of the NYPD within hours of setting foot in India.

DAVIES: And how do the feds feel when something like the London, you know, transit bombings or the Mumbai attacks happen, and they're there in an official capacity, representing the U.S. government, and then there are these New York City cops running around getting information?

Mr. DICKEY: They don't like it, and sometimes, there are huge blowouts about it, where the - several times, the FBI has tried to stop the NYPD from going to these sites, and sometimes, they have spread the word afterwards that the NYPD in some way compromised the investigations. And you can see why the FBI particularly would be unhappy about this, because they feel that it confuses lines of communication. Hi, I'm the FBI guy from the United States. Oh, no, we just already talked to the NYPD guy; why do we need to talk to you? I mean, those kinds of issues are very, very difficult to sort out, and there have been times when there really was not good communication, in fact, when there was really bad communication. The FBI guy in Paris tried very hard to stop the NYPD guy from ever taking up his post there. But ultimately, Ray Kelly actually knows President Sarkozy.

DAVIES: That's Ray Kelly, the New York City police commissioner?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKEY: Ray Kelly the New York, New York...

DAVIES: Knows the premier of France.

Mr. DICKEY: The - I mean, - Ray Kelly is a very well-connected guy, the police commissioner of New York, and he has known Nicolas Sarkozy for years, since Sarkozy was the interior minister of France. So, he got what he wanted at the end of the day, but there are lots of frictions and you can see why they would take place. But eventually, even the head of the FBI field office in New York came around to accepting this, because it's understood that the NYPD doesn't need information it's going to use in court. Its business in this respect is to prevent terrorism, not to prosecute terrorists. And in order to do that, it will take some information that may not be true from Mumbai, that may be a misreading of the situation, but it needs the information right away because it needs to act right away.

If you know that those terrorists in Mumbai communicated with cell phones, and there is a way that you can organize yourself to specifically target certain areas where people are using cell phones in order to block those signals, you want to have that up and running in case there's an assault. Remember, also, that al-Qaeda especially loves to carry out simultaneous assaults. It's not at all beyond the realm of possibility that you would have an attack in Mumbai, an attack in Istanbul, one in Paris, one in London and one in New York City and one in L.A., all at the same time, some day, just because it would create such spectacle, which is a big part of what the al-Qaeda organization wants to do.

DAVIES: Christopher Dickey's new book is "Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force - The NYPD." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Newsweek's Paris bureau chief and Middle East regional editor, Christopher Dickey. His new book, "Securing the City," is about New York City police department's counterterrorism division, which Dickey says is the nation's most effective counterterror force. You know, I think one of the most interesting examples of how important observant cops can be in preventing some kind of a disaster was one which actually predated, you know, this anti-terror effort, going back to 1997, where there was - it involved an effort against a subway station. Would you describe that and how it was fought?

Mr. DICKEY: Yeah. I mean, I think - I devote a fair amount of time to the whole question of near misses. And I think the one that's most frightening was this one in 1997, where you had two Palestinian guys, who had no particular record before, but who had worked up their anger and had decided that they were going to carry out a bombing in New York City that would be just like the bombings that were being carried out in Israel at that time, which was at the height of one of the horrifying suicide-bombing campaigns. So, they went down to North Carolina, and they bought a lot of gunpowder there, because they could. They didn't have to manufacture their own explosives. They went back up to New York, and they made suicide vests, right to Hamas specifications, and they plotted an operation in which they were going to do exactly what Hamas does, in its worst attacks.

They were going to get on the subway, going under the East River, the B train. One guy was going to blow himself up, and then, when rescue workers finally got to the scene, the second guy was going to blow himself up and blow up the rescue workers. And so, you can imagine how horrific this would be, and they were hours away from doing it. But they were living in a shack in back of a brownstone, in - on Park Slope, in Brooklyn. And they had roommates, and one of those roommates was a young Egyptian guy who had just arrived a couple of weeks before in the United States. He'd won the green card lottery, and so, he was there to work and bring his family over. And he was all excited, even though he was living in this hovel in Brooklyn.

And one of the Palestinians says to him, you saw that bomb that went off in the market in Israel yesterday? Well, we've got these bombs, and we're going to do the same thing here tomorrow. Well, the Egyptian was terrified, and he went out looking for somebody to tell, for the police. But he didn't speak any English. All he could get out of his mouth was, bomba bomba(ph), when he found two cops from the Long Island Railroad. And this is what you were talking about. They were concerned enough. They had enough cop sense to know this was not just another lunatic wandering around, some ambulatory schizophrenic at 11 o'clock at night in Brooklyn. They thought something was really serious with this guy. But even then, it took them hours.

They took the guy to the NYPD. The NYPD at that time didn't have any linguists on its force that were really employed effectively. Somebody knew somebody who knew somebody who was a cop in Manhattan. They got him over. He spoke Arabic, but a different dialect. The FBI translator came, but hours later and very reluctantly. Finally, they got a picture of what was going on. And you had the emergency service unit - what you'd call a SWAT team - go in, use the Egyptian's key, go into that apartment, and they wound up shooting both the guys, one of whom narrowly missed detonating the explosive vest, and both of them wound up in jail. But if they'd been two hours later, if the FBI translator refused to get out of bed, if the Long Island Railroad cops had just decided this was some nut, then that incident would've taken place. And it would certainly have been, at that point, the most horrific international terrorist incident ever to take place in the United States of America.

DAVIES: And you know, the story of the Egyptian who turned them in and other things that occur in the book remind me of - you know, people say that the best - one of the best ways to keep us safe is to stop creating terrorists overseas, to stop creating the conditions which radicalize and turn people into fanatics. And it occurred to me that, you know, New York is this teeming city of eight million people, and that because there are these immigrant communities in which there is openness and opportunity, it - there are just so many people around who have different perspectives that it makes it harder for, I think, terrorists to, you know, have the support and secrecy they need to do what they want to do.

Mr. DICKEY: Well, I think - absolutely. I don't want to sound Pollyannaish, or maybe too Obama-ish, at the moment, but the truth is that one of the greatest sources of security in the United States, and especially in New York City, is the American dream. First-generation immigrants come to America to build new lives. They don't come to American to blow people up. Now, they may be angry; certain communities may be very angry about things that are going on overseas. They may be angry about Israel and Palestine; they may be angry about Iraq; they may be angry about Kashmir. But it is striking that they do not support the idea of terrorist attacks, especially not in the United States of America. And as a result, the most important source of intelligence - and this would be true for any city in the United States, not just one that has the enormous resources and focus of New York - the most important thing is that the people in the communities themselves reject terrorism, not by making proclamations, but sometimes by making anonymous calls and saying, we don't want people like that.

You know, one of the characteristics of homegrown terrorist groups - they've been studied very closely by the NYPD. They wrote a whole, huge, rather ambitious paper, 90 pages on radicalization in the West, by studying a lot of cases. One of the most striking things in that report is the problem is not when you've got a bunch of young guys who start going to the mosque; the problem is when you've got a group of guys who suddenly pull out of the mosque because they don't want that mainstream opinion. They don't want to hear an imam, who's saying, you know, Islam is a religion of peace and justice. They have their own ideas all tied up with their own anger and their own testosterone about how they want to do things. And that's when they become dangerous. That's when the NYPD starts looking at how best to penetrate the group. But it's also when people in the community start to call the police and say, we're worried about these guys. And that's extremely important.

DAVIES: There was another fascinating detail. You said that the New York City Police Department, its intelligence division, has a van which can be decorated to exactly reproduce a terrorist hideout, I mean, the apartment of somebody who just went off and planted a bomb. Is that right?

Mr. DICKEY: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: What's the point of that?

Mr. DICKEY: Well, the point of that - there are several rooms in the van, and - but the one that I think people would understand the most is one room is an exact replica of the room where the bombs were made that were used to blow up the subways in London in 2005. And the purpose of this is to take cops - cops off the beat, police sergeants, who may not be directly involved with counterterrorism at all - and say, look, you should know this is what an apartment used for bomb-making looks like, and these are some of the telltale signs.

And there's also a question of safety here. You go into that apartment, and you're going to wind up walking all over white powder on the floor -of course, it's just white powder; I don't know what it actually is - but if it were a bomb-making apartment, that stuff would be an incredibly volatile explosive. And if you stepped on it and slid your foot across it, you could be blown up. Don't assume that this is a cocaine factory or a crack factory or anything else. If you see something that looks like this, you back out of there, call in the bomb squad. And also, if you see that there are people coming in and out of a place like this, you may have a terrorist plot on your hands.

DAVIES: Christopher Dickey's new book is called, "Securing the City." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Christopher Dickey. His new book about the New York City's police department's counterterrorism efforts is called "Securing the City." He's also Newsweek's Paris bureau chief and Middle East regional editor. Well, Christopher Dickey, I wanted to talk a little bit about the moment we are in, in the Middle East, which you follow so closely. And President Obama, of course, has made efforts to reach out to the Muslim world. Right before he took office, of course, there was the crisis in Gaza, which, I guess, he was saved from dealing with directly by the Israeli withdrawal. How have people in the Arab and Muslim world reacted to the president so far?

Mr. DICKEY: Very, very positively. The people in the Arab and Muslim world, to begin with, love the idea that there is a president of the United States named Barack Hussein Obama. And people in the Arab and Muslim world, I think it has to be said, are often described as hating the United States. That is a vast exaggeration. They really did hate George Bush and his policies, but there's a tremendous reserve of admiration for the United States in a lot of Arab and Muslim countries. And obviously, it is to the benefit of the United States and, ultimately, helps secure the United States, when the admiration for the country coincides with admiration for the president and there's an era of good feeling.

All that said, however, as I think Obama's discovered on many fronts, in the Arab and Muslim world, there was a lot of disappointment in him, even before he actually took office, because he really did not say much about what was going on in Gaza, and feelings were running very, very high, and there was a feeling that he was dodging the issue. There is suspicion in the Arab world - you see it in the Arab press all the time - of Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, whose father was an Israeli and who is known to have extremely close ties to Israel. This is a point of some concern. On the other hand, his nomination of George Mitchell, whose mother was Lebanese, to go and - these kinds of things are very important in the Arab and Muslim world - to go and be his point man on the peace process is seen as generally good.

But Obama's not going to be able to do much in the Middle East for the next several months, not only because he clearly has to focus on the economy, but because there are a lot of elections and changes going on that he's not going to be able to just put aside. He's got to wait for several things to play out. By about June, you will have had elections in Lebanon, which may bring Hezbollah to power as essentially the controlling factor in the government in Lebanon; you will have had elections in Iran, which may or may not mean the demise of the apocalyptic President Ahmadinejad; you'll also have the elections, of course, in Israel, and those results are bound to affect the policies of the U.S. administration because it all depends on which parties and which personalities you're dealing with.

DAVIES: You know, some have said that the prospects for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine grow dimmer with time, both because of the actions of Israeli settlers in the West Bank as well as kind of the bitterly fractious leadership among the Palestinians. Do you see a chance for Obama to make headway on this issue?

Mr. DICKEY: I think it will be extremely difficult. I think that there's a level of despair on both sides in that conflict that says, basically, we just can't move forward; we better settle in for the long war and the long confrontation; there's not going to be any peace. You feel that more and more. That doesn't mean it's impossible to make peace. There are still some frameworks that may be useful, particularly the Arab peace plan of 2002. But the Arab League itself is fractured. They - going into a recent summit in Kuwait, there were two, sort of, counter-summits before it, during the Gaza fighting.

So, I don't think it - I don't see anything good, right now, in terms of the peace process. There's very little credible leadership on any side, at any level, and without that credible leadership, it's almost impossible - I'd say it is impossible - for the United States to just step in and fill the vacuum. The good news is it probably will have a more enlightened policy than the Bush administration, but things were allowed to deteriorate so badly over the last eight years, as on so many other fronts, that Obama will spend probably his entire first term trying to put - get us back to square one.

DAVIES: He's also talked about, of course, an opening to Iran. There was a piece which you and a colleague wrote about the views of former American hostages, who were, in fact, the last diplomats, American diplomats, to be in Tehran. What insights can you offer about Obama's prospects for a productive engagement of Iran?

Mr. DICKEY: I think he has to be a tough negotiator, but talking is negotiating, and that was certainly the approach that was being suggested by these former hostages and former senior American diplomats. You know, I don't think they had any illusions about how treacherous, really, the Iranians can be in negotiations and how tough they are. But the key thing that Obama has done, and I think this is an absolutely central - is absolutely central to any kind of peace process, and particularly when dealing with Iran, is to understand that Iran is a rational actor. Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, may say irrational things, but the policy establishment of Iran is extremely rational. It has different and conflicting objectives with the United States. It doesn't think the way we do, but it doesn't behave illogically and irrationally. And once you understand that, then you say, we're going to sit down and we're going to have tough negotiations and tough talks, and there's going to be a lot of walking away from the table and a lot of walking back, but you can talk.

DAVIES: And of course, there's the terribly difficult situation about Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban is active, and President Obama has appointed Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy. Smart move, do you think?

Mr. DICKEY: Well, Holbrooke has a record as one of the greatest diplomatic troubleshooters of the last 50 years. So, if he can't do it, who could? But then again, that may be the answer: Who can solve that problem? That's extremely difficult. And Pakistan is, by far, the biggest worry, I think, in the overall spectrum of threats to American and global security right now. It's an unstable country. You want to keep it democratic, but you want it to be more stable. Already, I think, they just recently let the father of the Pakistan atom bomb and the purveyor of nuclear technology to Iran and other countries, A. Q. Khan - was just let out of house arrest.

At the same time, they seem incapable of moving effectively against the last remnants of al-Qaeda up in Waziristan, in the mountains near the Afghan border. And there's huge bad blood between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and you've got the weakening of Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, after several years in power and a hell of a lot of corruption. So, all of this, you can sort of see it crumbling, and then you add to that this salient fact that Pakistan has multiple nuclear weapons. So, yeah...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKEY: I think Holbrooke has his job cut out for him, but he is a very smart diplomat, very charismatic guy, and he's going to spend a lot of time on the ground trying to sort this out.

DAVIES: A lot of dispiriting facts confront us.

Mr. DICKEY: Hey, I'd love to give you some good news here, Dave...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKEY: But there's precious little good news to go around these days.

DAVIES: Before we let you go, I was hoping you would share with us some of the thoughts that you offered in a piece right around Martin Luther King Day and the inauguration of Obama, in which you wrote about the relevance of King's message for a lot of people, a lot of the actors, in the Middle East.

Mr. DICKEY: Yeah, I think - I wrote that piece right in the middle of Gaza conflict, where you could see everything spiraling in the direction that was just going to take us so far away from any possibility of any workable peace agreement. And because it was Martin Luther King Day, it seemed to me to be worthwhile looking at the whole question of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience and how much bravery it takes to carry out those kinds of strategies and tactics, and yet, how effective they are because they don't close the door to dialogue. Violence does; the nature of violence is that it closes the door to negotiation, even to conversation. It builds deep hatreds that last for generations.

You know, I'm from the American South. It took well over a century, and you could say, a century and a half, for people in the South to forget the Civil War. The Palestinians are not going to forget the violence. The Israelis are not going to forget the violence, but if you had Palestinians who were protesting en masse in ways that were nonviolent, I think that they would touch something in the consciences of the Israelis that rockets being launched into Sderot and Ashkelon will never do. And I would hope that they would respond to that idea. And there certainly are Palestinians and Israelis who understand that, but it may be wishful thinking. Let's hope not, let's hope not.

DAVIES: Well, Christopher Dickey, it's been great. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.

Mr. DICKEY: Thank you, Dave, always a pleasure.

DAVIES: Christopher Dickey is Paris bureau chief and Middle East regional editor for Newsweek. His new book is "Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force - The NYPD." Coming up, Ken Tucker on the debut CD by the L.A. band Fol Chen. This is Fresh Air.
Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Elusive Fol Chen Offers Dark, Whimsical Debut


Fol Chen is a Los Angeles based band that mixes dance and pop music with more abstract experimental forms. Rock critic Ken Tucker says the band's debut release, which is called "Part 1: John Shade, Your Fortune's Made," may be very self-conscious, but also very appealing.

(Soundbite of song "Don't Follow Me")

FOL CHEN: (Singing)
We don't swallow cigarettes,
Breaking windows, climbing trees.
Don't follow me, now.
Don't follow me...

KEN TUCKER: Fol Chen commences its debut album advising us in the chorus of that opening song, don't follow me. Don't worry, Fol Chen. Who's going to try and attempt your instantly unique blend of dread and whimsy, your quietly stated intensity? The band tries to hide its faces in photographs and videos, and issues bits of information about itself that are less press releases than gnomic prose poems. Yet the group isn't nearly as arch or pretentious as what I just said would seem to imply.

(Soundbite of song "No Wedding Cake")

FOL CHEN: (Singing)
I could never break your heart.
I could never break your, break your, heart, again.

Listen to me,
I could never break your heart,
I could never break your heart again.
Listen to this song.
Listen to this song.

I could never break your heart,
I could try to never again,
Too far again (unintelligible).
Listen to me,
I could never break your heart...

TUCKER: Hear what I mean? How can you not develop an immediate fondness for an art-rock experiment that delivers sentiments like, "I could never break your heart," and simply beseeches us to just "listen to this song." With its perky keyboard riffs and chicken-scratch guitar, that song, called "No Wedding Cake," is a charmer. Indeed, charm and a knack for memorable melodies is what lends Fol Chen an energy too many self-consciously hip bands lack.

(Soundbite of song "The Idiot")

FOL CHEN: (Singing)
Everybody here thinks I'm an idiot.
Everybody here
Can't stop laughing.
How can that be true
If I'm in love with you?

Everybody here thinks it's a big joke.
Everybody here will think it's a big joke.
How can that be true
If I'm in love with you?
If I'm in love with you?

All these jets,
And all these trains,
Wake up shivering again
So far away,
So far away.

Is it the same for you?
Oh, what can I do?

TUCKER: Over synthesized beats, organ-like sounds and floating vocals, these lines sink in with quivering resonance: "Everybody here thinks I'm an idiot; how can that be true if I'm in love with you?" It's a sweet, winning sentiment, its tenderness bolstered by the firm, springy rhythms. Fol Chen's best vocals are provided by Melissa Thorne, who's already helped turn this song, "Cable TV," into an Internet-download hit.

(Soundbite of song "Cable TV")

FOL CHEN: (Singing)
Now you've been working so hard,
Running in circles like a robot shorting circuits.
I get such a glow.

I've got to make an appointment
Just to kiss you, baby.
I'm not complaining,
But I've got to know,
Won't you come away with me?

I'm not rich,
But our first night is on me.
You know I just got paid, baby.
I know a place, and they got cable TV...

TUCKER: A simple song about an assignation at a cheap hotel with cable TV, that composition is filled with nice little details, such as a line about, quote, "getting dizzy from the spritzers in the desert heat." It's sung by Melissa Thorne in a kind of barely inflected murmur that comes off in music like this as both brainy and sexy. And what of that unwieldy album title, "Part 1: John Shade, Your Fortune's Made"? Well, members of Fol Chen have made vague remarks that John Shade represents evil, which would seem confirmed by the song called "Please John, You're Killing Me."

(Soundbite of song "Please John, You're Killing Me")

FOL CHEN: (Singing)
John Shade,
Your fortune's made.
You own the principles.

I got it,
Gone too far,
This doesn't feel like home.

And believe me,
when I sold us all my heart(ph).

TUCKER: But it occurred to me that John Shade is also the name of the poet in Vladimir Nabokov's 1962 novel, "Pale Fire." I can easily imagine the members of Fol Chen, so fond of obscuring their own identities and motives, being taken with Nabokov's tale of a poet whose work is obsessively annotated by others - kind of like what happens when music critics try and take apart Fol Chen's music to see what makes it tick. No matter; as Nabokov proved, analyzing admirable but elusive allusive work only adds another layer of pleasure.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed the debut album from the band Fol Chen called "Part 1: John Shade, Your Fortune's Made." You can download podcasts of the show at Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Bob Perdick. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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