Before Najibullah Zazi is finally dispatched to a secure cellblock for good, it is important to remember how the taxi-driver-turned-terrorist was brought to justice — and why the critics who jeered his civilian prosecution were dead wrong. By convicting Zazi and pursuing the leads that his capture and interrogation have provided, the FBI has shown that traditional American methods — rather than the “enhanced interrogation” and military tribunals favored by the right — are highly effective instruments of national security.

The FBI takedown of Zazi’s planned “martyrdom operation” began soon after police stopped him on his way into New York City last September. Using lawfully authorized search-and-surveillance techniques, agents quickly established that he was putting together the components for the same kind of explosive — known as TATP — that had been used in the London subway bombings. The al-Qaida conspiracy to attack the New York subways, with the hapless Zazi as a suicide bomber, was extinguished.

Following his arrest, Zazi obtained counsel and, like many criminal defendants, seemed to be preparing to go to trial. Then came the drumbeat of criticism from the right, led by former officials of the Bush administration. Former White House press secretary Dana Perino declared in the National Review that the Zazi case provided a “cautionary tale” because the surveillance had been aborted, the case blown and the investigation ended “prematurely.”

According to Perino, the suspect had lawyered up and “stopped talking.” Without applying instruments of torture, she worried, “any further cooperation Zazi may provide is up to him and his lawyer.” If only the Obama administration had declared Zazi to be an “enemy combatant” and applied “so-called enhanced interrogation techniques” to him, the results would have been far better.

The same complaints were heard, predictably, from former prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, another frequent commentator in the right-wing media, who charged that the FBI and the New York City Police Department had somehow botched the Zazi probe. As of last fall, such critics were predicting that the case would conclude with minor charges against the defendants, including Zazi — and a lost opportunity to pursue important investigative leads against al-Qaida operatives both here and abroad.

The mistakes were made not by the FBI, however, but by its critics, whose dire predictions turned out to be entirely erroneous. Not only did Zazi plead guilty this week and detail the entire conspiracy in his confession, but he and at least one of his uncles, indicted in a separate sealed proceeding, are evidently cooperating in what Attorney General Eric Holder has described as an “ongoing investigation.”

A hint of the contours of that investigation could be found in the Justice Department’s summary of the case against Zazi. It explains that although he had traveled to Pakistan with the intention of joining the Taliban, he was “recruited by al-Qaida” shortly after arriving there and taken to Waziristan for terror training. His indictment for conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country suggests that Zazi is talking about the individuals who trained and indoctrinated him and the places where that occurred.

Not surprisingly, the same caustic critics who tried to use the Zazi case to demand tribunals and torture instead of constitutional justice are paying scant attention to the outcome. But the attorney general spoke out clearly and convincingly about the broader meaning of this case when the defendant entered his plea:

“This demonstrates that our federal civilian criminal justice system … is a powerful tool in our fight against terrorism. … We have to couple it with what we do on the military side, what we do on the intelligence-gathering side. But to take this tool out of our hands, to denigrate the use of this tool, flies in the face of the facts.”

As American and Pakistani agents apprehend Taliban officials, and as the Justice Department uses lawful means to induce one terror suspect after another to cooperate, those facts ought to matter to anyone who cares about defeating al-Qaida — rather than scoring cheap shots against the Constitution.

Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.

© 2010

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