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JFK plot derailed

Charges in an alleged plot at JFK airport show FBI emphasis on intelligence-gathering.

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The FBI's takedown of a alleged plot to blow up the major jet-fuel tanks and supply pipeline for John F. Kennedy International Airport is a sign that the federal law-enforcement agency is coming into its own as a domestic intelligence agency in the post-9/11 era.

No longer simply made up of the crime-fighting G-men portrayed by actor James Cagney in the 1930s, the FBI is now training its agents to think more like the intelligence analysts who have long inhabited the warrens of the CIA's Langley headquarters.

The four men charged over the weekend in connection with the JFK airport had allegedly been plotting since January 2006. One was a former airport employee who had done extensive surveillance of the grounds, according to the criminal complaint. Another, a former member of Guyana's parliament, planned to tap radical groups in South America and the Caribbean for support, the complaint says.

Had the defendants carried out their plan, it could have resulted in "unfathomable damage, deaths, and destruction," said US Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf in announcing the charges. Yet the plans were never operationally feasible, and the public was not at risk. "We remain unwavering in our commitment to stop terrorist plots before they become terrorist acts," she said.

The shift among federal and local law-enforcement officials – from investigating and prosecuting crimes after the fact to proactively working to prevent terrorism – became a top priority in Washington after 9/11 revealed intelligence failures. But the transition has been under way for decades, starting with the FBI's successful infiltration of La Cosa Nostra – the Mafia – in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s, the New York Police Department also started using intelligence techniques to analyze crime trends and infiltrate drug gangs.

But 9/11 speeded up the transition. And the way that the JFK plot was handled is indicative of the changed focus.

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