03/05/2012 12:48 pm ET Updated May 05, 2012

Ray Kelly Waves the 9/11 Flag

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie versus Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Throw in Long Island Congressman Peter King. It's a nightmare of something you tried to avoid on school playgrounds a lifetime ago.

The issue is the NYPD's anti-terrorism activities, which seem to have extended well outside the city lines. Christie is ticked off that New York police officers have been compiling dossiers on Muslim businesses, restaurants, places of worship and student groups in New Jersey. Without his knowledge.

The New York police brass, he fumed, thought they were "masters of the universe."

"I wish Chris Christie was more concerned about keeping people alive than he is about trying to score cheap political points," sniped King, who heads the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Kelly shot back that some people have "short memories as to what happened here in 2001." This is the ultimate diss. When the fight is between the guy who wants to do more to avoid a terrorist attack and -- well, it doesn't matter. The guy who wants to stop terrorism always wins.

Volley back to Christie, whose spokesman said that the real lesson of 9/11 was that law enforcement agencies were supposed to coordinate.

Okay, Commissioner, your turn.

"The notion that the Police Department should close our eyes to what takes place outside the five boroughs is folly, and it defies the lessons of history," Kelly said in a speech over the weekend. "If terrorists aren't limited by borders and boundaries, we can't be either."

So true. Which is why we have, er, the FBI and the CIA and the monster Department of Homeland Security. The questions raised by the activities of New York City cops begins with the matter of why they're the ones doing it.

And what, by the way, are they doing, precisely. Compiling dossiers of what Muslims in the greater metropolitan area are up to -- where they go to eat, what businesses they run, where they worship, what their kids do outside of school. The theory is that you may pick up information about some guy who's talking trash about terror. Or that if you learn a possibly dangerous target has somehow made his way into the country, you will have some good ideas of where he might go to get a bite to eat or pray.

If only others (presumably including former Mayor Rudy Giuliani) had taken the same approach after the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, Kelly suggested, the Sept. 11 attack might have been averted. "It was precisely our failure to understand the context in 1993 that left us vulnerable in 2001," the commissioner insisted. "We won't make that mistake again -- on Mayor Bloomberg's watch or mine."

But the failure pre-9/11 had nothing to do with a lack of knowledge of where Muslims in New Jersey like to go for a snack, or how many times their kids pray when they go white-water-rafting (a detail an undercover officer reported after tagging along with a bunch of college students on an outing.) It was that the World Trade Center continued to be the focus of terrorist obsession overseas. Pick up on that one concept, and you've got your anti-terrorism strategy. Miss it and you could send the entire department out to shop at every Muslim-owned store in the Northeast and it would mean nothing.

The closest call we've had since 9/11 occurred in Times Square in 2010, where it was street vendors who spotted a smoking SUV that turned out to be a home-made car bomb. If You See Something, Say Something.

Kelly is understandably obsessed with not allowing another terrorist attack on his watch. And you're not going to get most New Yorkers -- or New Jerseyans -- to get exercised over anything he does, no matter how crazy and excessive, in the name of homeland security.

This is particularly true if the intrusions bother somebody else. The law-abiding Muslim citizens are rightfully ticked off. Who wants to think that the New York cops are putting your restaurant on a list of places where a terrorist might want to drop by to have dinner while he's planning to blow up a synagogue? Who wants to think that an undercover cop might have joined your kid's white-water rafting trip just to report back on what the rafters talked about and how many times they prayed?

Try to imagine how enthusiastic the area would be about Kelly's obsession if he felt compelled to close down all the tunnels to New Jersey for a week to do some special surveillance. Or if he decided there was a danger that old Irish Republican Army members were allied with al-Qaeda, and sent cops out to make a list of every enterprise run by an Irish Catholic on Long Island. See how thrilled Peter King is when he discovers there was an undercover officer on a retreat at a local convent, filing reports on what the priest said in their sermons and how many participants went to confession.

This is a what-if game, in which for the players, the safest course of action is almost always to over do it. We have New York City police officers in foreign countries, gathering intelligence of some kind. The city cops have their own weapons to shoot down incoming aircraft.

I have no idea how much of this is really sensible. Neither do you. The problem is, there's nobody with the power and access to information who's trying to make sure things stay under control.

There's nobody watching the New York City police to guard them from overreaching. Sure, the Civilian Complaint Review Board looks into allegations of police brutality. The department's own Internal Affairs Bureau investigates police misconduct. But there's no agency that keeps an eye out to make sure the department isn't going off on a crazy mission in another state.

Except the mayor. But Michael Bloomberg has shown absolutely no inclination to reign in Kelly.

At 70, the Police Commissioner has now been at his job for 10 years, longer than anyone else in the city's history. He has 52,000 people working for him, and while most of them are in the business of fighting regular crime, a growing chunk of the department is in the anti-terrorism business, running intelligence efforts that reach into 11 foreign cities, not to mention New Jersey and Connecticut.

Kelly's achievements are genuine. He's kept the crime rate down, and there have been no successful terrorist attacks in New York City on his watch -- although the latter achievement has been matched by every other police chief in the United States.

We simply can't judge. Except to note that in other areas, Kelly has shown signs of serious slippage in recent years. There would probably have been no ongoing Occupy Wall Street movement if it had not been for the stupid and brutal overreaching of police officers charged with controlling the demonstrations.

Kelly showed up in a rabidly anti-Muslim movie, The Third Jihad, which was shown to police officers undergoing anti-terrorist training. There's no reason to doubt his claim that he didn't realize what the film was actually about, but that doesn't explain how it wound up on the police department lesson plan.

I wish Bloomberg was on the case. But he isn't. No one in authority is going to cast an objective eye on these police operations unless the department does something so counter-productive we all can't help but notice - a local version of the Afghan Koran burning, or a screw up in which there are so many law enforcement groups watching the same target that the target gets away in the confusion.

Until then, as long as Kelly waves the 9/11 flag over everything he's doing, he has immunity. But this whole scene makes me worried, very worried.