City Journal

Heather Mac Donald
Keeping New York Safe from Terrorists
Intelligence sharing and accountability for investigators are the keys.
Autumn 2001

Over the last eight years, the New York Police Department waged the most successful war on crime in the city's history. The NYPD conquered fear as well as crime, and in so doing sparked an economic boom and a civic rebirth that drew millions of visitors each year.

Now, fear once again threatens to shut the city down. In less than two hours, the maniacs who destroyed the World Trade Center killed over twice the number of people as were murdered in all of 1990 (2,245), the pinnacle of New York's homicide epidemic. The city's economy is reeling from the blow.

Closing the country's borders to potential terrorists is essential to prevent future attacks. But even were U.S. immigration policies immediately and sufficiently strengthened (a doubtful outcome), New York and the nation still face the likelihood of attacks from people already in the country.

Fortunately, the tools the New York Police Department developed to fight street crime—above all, the intelligence and accountability mechanism known as Compstat—are tailor-made for combating terrorism. Applying them to America's new war, however, will require solving one of the most enduring problems in policing: turf jealousy, especially between the FBI and local law-enforcement agencies.

Ali, a wholesaler of counterfeit designer goods in Manhattan's Garment District, knows terrorism first-hand. Hezbollah—the Lebanese Muslim militia—killed Ali's brother in Lebanon in the early 1980s while burning down the family house. Ironically, Ali's business district is a vast money funnel for Hezbollah. His fellow counterfeiters, who sell knock-off Fendi handbags and Yves St. Laurent scarves from tiny rooms scrawled with Arabic graffiti above Broadway, collect funds for the cause back home.

The tall, long-lashed 35-year-old sees similarities between his former country and his current working environment. The counterfeiters, many of whom also sell guns and drugs, have spotters on each corner looking for undercover cops; better outfitted with communication equipment than most New York drug gangs, the bootleggers can quickly close up shop and disappear when alerted to a possible raid. "These guys all grew up in war—they know how to operate," he says. "It's like a terrorist camp here, like a military base."

The NYPD's Intelligence Division discovered the terrorist funding stream in the 1990s when it was investigating Garment District counterfeiting. It took the information to the FBI with an offer to help the bureau shut down the terrorism connection.

Not a chance, said the FBI. Get off of our turf. In fact, stop going after counterfeiting rings entirely, since you may compromise our own investigations.

Now, the FBI was technically within its rights in brushing off the NYPD's offer of collaboration. The bureau oversees the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) in New York City, made up of federal, state, and local law-enforcement officers, which by agreement has exclusive jurisdiction over local terrorism investigations. But by so precipitously rejecting the NYPD's aid, the FBI cut itself off from the department's unparalleled manpower and expertise. "The best of the NYPD's best is the best in the country," observes Robert Gianelli, former commanding officer of the department's Emergency Services Unit. NYPD's most seasoned detectives are unmatched in their ability to debrief suspects. Undoubtedly some of the crooks the department picked up for counterfeiting could have been "flipped" and turned into informants about terrorist financing. Other street criminals may also know something about the funding network.

Current and former members of the NYPD fear that the Garment District conflict may be a preview of how the investigations of the September 11 attack will unfold. These NYPD veterans warn that the FBI is cutting itself off from a vital source of intelligence and manpower in the fight against terrorism—local law enforcement. No one is closer to the communities that harbor terrorists than local police officers; no one has greater resources to track down leads. But the traditional lack of trust between the bureau and the local agencies has limited the required collaboration.

"I believe the life of the nation may depend" on federal-local cooperation, testified Edward T. Norris, Baltimore police commissioner and former NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Operations, to a congressional subcommittee in early October. The FBI's failure to include local law enforcement in its terrorism efforts is putting the country at risk, he warned. "The rules of engagement for law enforcement [must] change forever," Norris asserted. "We all need each other if we as a nation are going to successfully counter threats that can come from virtually anywhere, at any time, in any form, including forms that could destroy whole cities."

Norris complained that the watch list distributed by the FBI to local police a week after the attack contained only names, with no other identifying information, such as descriptions, addresses, pictures, or places of employment—making it virtually useless as a detection tool. "I frankly do not understand this," he testified. "When someone commits a murder, rape, or robbery, you plaster his picture all over police stations and, whenever possible, in the media, to help locate that individual before he commits another crime. Now we're looking for the murderers of thousands who may become the murderers of thousands, even millions, more."

The FBI has also kept its new leads dangerously close to the vest. In the days after the World Trade Center collapse, thousands of tips poured into New York's Joint Terrorism Task Force, overwhelming its ability to track them down. Meanwhile, many NYPD detectives who weren't members of the task force were desperate to pitch in, but were kept "sitting on their hands," reports Daniel Oates, former chief of the NYPD's Intelligence Division, now chief of the Ann Arbor, Michigan, police department. Nationally, the FBI had received more than 260,000 leads as of October 9. Given that the FBI has only 11,500 agents compared with nearly 650,000 local law-enforcement officers, Ed Norris asks, "Why aren't we all working together to find the people the FBI is looking for?"

Norris cites a tip regarding a suspicious vehicle that the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company gave the FBI following the September 11 attack. The FBI never told Norris's Baltimore cops. "What if the truck shows up at other locations?" he fumes. "We could track it down."

NYPD veterans are still haunted by their truncated investigation of Rabbi Meir Kahane's 1990 assassination, which could have picked up early warning signs of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The detective who searched the home of Kahane's murderer, El Sayed Al Nosair, brought back from Nosair's home four file cabinets full of Arabic documents. He locked them up in the 17th Precinct at 4 AM. When he returned four hours later, the file cabinets were gone. The FBI had taken possession. Three years later, the bureau discovered that Nosair's documents, which it had never translated, anticipated the trade-center attack.

"It was the same big lie," recalls Norris, who oversaw the Kahane inquiry. "'You guys stay away from our case!'" Are you sure the NYPD would have translated the documents? I asked Norris. "Of course we would have," he retorted. "We had a murder investigation under way." Besides, Norris says, you didn't even need to translate the files to know they were suspicious-the cabinets contained photos of New York City landmarks and terrorist manuals.

Former NYPD intelligence chief Daniel Oates bristles when recalling the inscrutable security alerts he used to receive from the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force at 5 PM Friday afternoons. "I'd be getting these bullshit phone calls from the JTTF: ‘We have a threat to the Empire State Building.’ ‘What can you tell me about it?’ I'd ask. ‘Nothing,’ they'd say. Eventually they'd disclose that it was a bomb threat. ‘What's the source of the threat?’ ‘We can't tell you.’ And then they'd all go home. And I'm supposed to advise the commissioner what to do!" exclaims Oates, shaking his head. "Their culture has to change."

It was to solve similar turf problems that the NYPD's Deputy Commissioner for Operations Jack Maple and Chief of Department Louis Anemone created Compstat in 1994. Police precincts were keeping crime and arrest information from each other for fear of giving a rival commander an advantage. But crime could not be conquered without maximum intelligence sharing, Maple and Anemone understood. So they began biweekly strategy meetings with precinct commanders and top brass, in which all participants were required to share everything they knew. At one early meeting, sensing a commander's continuing reticence, Jack Maple asked incredulously: "Whom in this room don't we trust?"

Maple's insistence that law-enforcement commanders should be presumed equal and trustworthy partners in the fight against crime produced spectacular results. With information pooled and subjected to intense analysis and sophisticated computer mapping, previously unseen crime patterns emerged. Compstat participants forged strategies to crush problems before they became major. Within months, crime was plummeting.

Compstat had another purpose: accountability. If a commander had no plan for attacking a local crime problem—worse, if he was not even aware of the problem—grilling from top brass would expose his managerial failure. At the next meeting, if he had made no progress, there was no place to hide. For the first time in the department's history, police officials were held accountable for reducing crime, rather than solving crimes after they had occurred.

The FBI's anti-terrorism efforts should be Compstated in every city where the bureau operates. Where a Joint Terrorism Task Force exists, the commanders of the agencies represented should meet on a biweekly basis to interrogate task-force members about the progress of their investigations. Where JTTFs don't exist, the FBI should assemble comparable meetings with all relevant agency heads. The new Fedstat meetings would have two purposes: to ensure that each ongoing investigation is being relentlessly and competently pursued, and to share intelligence. The only fail-safe defense against terrorism is information, but it must be made available to those who can best use it. In many cases, that will be local law enforcement.

What about security objections? Doesn't enlarging the circle of supervisors overseeing terrorist investigations increase the risk of leaks or tip-offs? While such intelligence-sharing meetings need to take great precautions to protect sources, the possibility of leaking by top law-enforcement officials is overblown, argues former chief Lou Anemone. "You need to be accountable," he insists. "Secrecy only covers up incompetency." Members of Congress are granted terrorist briefings upon request; the nation's police commanders have at least as much need for that information to keep their communities secure and are certainly far more aware of the possibly lethal consequences of security breaches than hot-house politicians. Requiring Fedstat participants to obtain security clearances would meet the security concerns. But in the past, complains ex-intelligence chief Oates, the FBI seemed reluctant even to begin the clearance process. Anemone recalls that New York's mayor Rudolph Giuliani was still waiting for a clearance years after requesting one.

Even a former FBI bigwig agrees that a Fedstat for terrorism makes sense. "The notion of bringing more people in to see if investigations are focused properly is appropriate," says Lewis Shiliro, the recent assistant director of the FBI's New York office. "We have to share information on a more real-time basis with any affected institution."

Once agency heads are meeting on a regular basis to monitor terrorist investigations, the information-gathering resources available would increase dramatically. The NYPD, for instance, could target enforcement activities on suspected terrorist groups and then apply the strategy that worked so well for street crime: treat every arrest as an opportunity to get information about other crimes. Though only one of the 19 hijackers of September 11 is known to have a criminal record, their associates, as well as previous terrorists, have been involved in a range of illegal activities that are far more likely to bring them into contact with police officers than with the FBI.

There are numerous ways to draw on the local police without compromising security. The FBI should create a primer on terrorist cells for beat cops, to help them recognize terrorism-relevant tips or behavior. A beat officer could use the information without knowing anything about specific investigations. But he does need to know that terrorists operate just like common criminals—they case the scene of the crime ahead of time. The 19 hijackers made repeat visits to the airports they departed from to find the soft spots. Terrorists seeking to blow up buildings may throw up a car hood outside the location to buy time for observation.

Even New York's Human Resources Administration—which has discovered 10,000 fugitive felons, including 12 murderers, on its welfare rolls, since it began cross-checking recipients' fingerprints against a national database of outstanding warrants—should check recipients against Interpol terrorist data too. In this vein, food-stamp fraud by grocers in the Midwest has long been linked to funding terrorism; cops should check New York's food-stamp rackets for the same connection.

Enlisting local forces brings in personnel with years of experience working the streets where terrorists blend in. Though the FBI has outstanding agents and offers excellent training, some young agents assigned to major cases are remarkably inexperienced. "When the FBI came to debrief our Garment District informants," recalls former chief Oates, "they sent some rube junior agent from the Midwest to go up against very sophisticated New York street criminals. Afterward, our CIs [confidential informants] were laughing about it."

Ali, the Garment District counterfeiter, offers a street-level take on the FBI investigation in his area. "There's a difference between book-wise and street-wise," he says. "Just because you have a college degree doesn't mean you know what's going on." Ali claims to have tried to help the FBI; he told them, he says, that he has seen people make surveillance tapes of Broadway. "But they don't take us seriously," he says angrily. "They say we don't have enough evidence. But they should take everything into consideration."

Ali's frustration with the FBI's high threshold of proof parallels the dilemma faced by some incisive FBI agents in Minnesota. The agents had tried twice to get a computer search warrant on Zacarias Moussaoui, now a suspected confederate of the 19 hijackers, in the weeks before September 11. Moussaoui had told a Minnesota flight school that he only needed to know how to operate a jet mid-flight, not how to take off or land, and he was already under investigation by French anti-terrorist agents. Yet the FBI bureaucracy insisted that the evidence did not support a warrant; only after September 11 did agents search his computer and find downloaded information about crop-dusting aircraft. Had the information gone into the intense analysis of Compstat, the outcome may have been different.

Ali has some advice for the FBI: get cracking! "They should make a couple of arrests [in the Garment District], so people think twice [about terrorist fund-raising]." Not all Middle Easterners are bad, he says, "but a lot here are. There should be a cleanup of everyone who's suspicious. The majority of people here are illegal; they should be out."

Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI director Robert Mueller have reached a similar conclusion. In early October, Ashcroft and Mueller ordered bureau agents to act more quickly on intelligence. Rather than slowly building up a detailed legal case against terrorist suspects, they should take them into custody. "The investigative staff has to be made to understand that we're not trying to solve a crime now," a law-enforcement official told the New York Times. "Our No. 1 goal is prevention." Echoing frustrated police chiefs, the official called for a culture change in the FBI.

No longer willing to wait for a federal invitation, some police chiefs are initiating their own terrorist investigations. The Baltimore department called in all its confidential informants and asked what they knew about terrorism. A former drug dealer mentioned someone who was planning to crash the mainframe computer at Johns Hopkins University, a crucial research center for bioterrorism. The suspect, a Tunisian working for Johns Hopkins's management information systems, had an out-standing deportation order; the police handed him over to the INS and seized his computer.

Such catches are just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens in the country who have overstayed their visas, overwhelming the capacity of the INS to track them down. Their names should be included in the National Crime Information Center, a database of outstanding warrants that traffic officers can check when they make a traffic stop or fill out an accident report. Terence Gainer, deputy chief of the Washington, D.C., police department, wants the FBI's terrorist suspects in there as well. "If the FBI is looking for 100 people, we are going to have the most contact with them, but we don't get the intelligence information we need," Gainer laments.

Precinct commanders should step up their outreach efforts to mosques and other Islamic institutions. There are undoubtedly people in such institutions willing to come forward with information about terrorism, out of altruism or for cash; accordingly, the local police should increase their visibility and accessibility. Police should work to build up trust throughout Muslim neighborhoods, says Ed Flynn, chief of police in Arlington County, Virginia. "Someone may call you up and say: ‘I don't feel right about these new tenants; they're paying all their debts in cash,’ " Flynn observes.

Local undercover work in the community is essential, too. A former NYPD intelligence detec-tive suggests checking out the coffee shops on Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue for possible sources of information. How do you know which shops? I asked him. "The ones where people dance in the streets when things happen overseas," he said. Just such a celebration broke out in Paterson, New Jersey, following the September 11 attack, but trying to get intelligence now from that community would be futile. "Everyone would be on a high state of alert," warns the detective. Ideally, you'd have someone there for at least a year before you actually need him. "I had undercovers going places for no reason other than for people to see their face, so if things go crazy, they wouldn't stir suspicion," he recalls.

Inevitably, the old, misplaced outcry about "racial profiling" will dog rational anti-terrorist efforts. "Law enforcement has been so sensitized to this, you double-guess yourself all the time," acknowledges Washington deputy chief Terence Gainer. The racial-profiling curse has already resulted in one tragic missed opportunity. A Maryland state trooper stopped one of the hijackers for speeding, according to Chief Norris. Several of the driver's characteristics heightened the trooper's suspicion: he couldn't say where he was going or answer other questions; he was driving a rental car without luggage; he was a Middle Easterner. Nevertheless, the trooper merely gave the hijacker a ticket and let him go. The trooper's reasoning? He would be accused of racial profiling if he questioned or held the man further. In light of the ACLU's fierce, years-long campaign accusing the Maryland state police of racism, who can blame him?

This is no time to capitulate to political correctness. A heinous crime has occurred; we know the identities of some of the perpetrators. We are now looking for their co-conspirators. We know that they belong to fanatical Muslim sects overwhelmingly from the Middle East, who meticulously guard entrance to their cells. The likelihood of a Southern Baptist black or Lutheran from Minnesota belonging to a terrorist cell is virtually zero. Law enforcement—including airport security—is stretched too thin in this epic battle not to target its resources.

New York's private security professionals should be part of the intelligence-sharing network too. An organization uniting the police and private security chiefs already exists in New York City, but the information communicated between the two sectors needs to be more detailed. "No one's closer than these security guys," observes former chief Anemone. "The hotel industry creates incident reports. I want that information—why was the maid startled when she entered Muhammad's room? I want to send my suits over." Ideally, suspicious activity would be communicated nationally across the public and private security spectrum. Patrick Kelleher, former NYPD First Deputy Commissioner and now head of global security for Merrill Lynch, observes ruefully: "Some American Airlines uniforms were stolen six months ago; it would have been nice to know that."

Information sharing needs to go right to the top. Tom Ridge, head of the new federal Office of Homeland Security, should call together the heads of all 46 federal agencies under his jurisdiction regularly to review the investigations in each agency's domain. This federal counterterrorism Compstat would grill the agents responsible for each investigation with relentless precision, making sure that each investigation is on target. At the moment, no mechanism exists to hold the federal agencies accountable for results and force them to share information.

The traditional firewalls between domestic and foreign intelligence must fall too, since terrorism respects no such bureaucratic boundaries. Had the CIA, FBI, and other agencies been sharing and rigorously analyzing their respective intelligence in a Compstat setting, an early warning of the September 11 hijackings may well have emerged. The fondness of suspected terrorists for flight schools may have been noticed and understood, especially after an abortive attempt by non-pilot hijackers to crash an Air France jet into the Eiffel Tower in 1994. Currently, the FBI has refused to give U.S. consulates abroad access to its crime records, according to the New York Times—records that could be crucial in deciding whether to grant someone a visa. Attorney General John Ashcroft is trying to encourage the information sharing needed to stop terrorism, but Congress, out of knee-jerk civil libertarian zeal, is gutting his proposed legislation that would allow greater disclosure of wiretap information among federal agencies and would share grand-jury information with national security and intelligence agencies.

To make the nation safer, policymakers also need to overhaul immigration rules and enforcement. The United States has had a de facto amnesty for immigration violators for years, and the official attitude toward immigration abuse has grown even more casual under President George W. Bush, who promised the Middle Eastern lobby during the campaign that he would ease up on deportations. In the future, visa applicants should be able to document a valid reason for entering the country, and federal authorities should make sure they leave when their visas expire.

Though immigration policy largely lies outside local control, New York City has only made a dangerously negligent situation worse. In 1989, then-mayor Ed Koch declared New York a sanctuary for illegal aliens, and every mayor since then has affirmed his policy. Koch forbade city workers from reporting illegal aliens to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Though his executive order made an exception for crime, in practice even alien arrestees rarely get turned in to the INS. The estimated 400,000 illegal aliens in the city exist outside any official tracking system—until, that is, they end up in prison, where they make up an astonishing 24 percent of the state's prisoners.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani even made defiance of the country's immigration rules a rallying cry of his administration. A 1996 federal welfare law declared that no local government could prohibit its employees from cooperating with the INS. Mayor Giuliani spent city tax dollars to challenge the law in court. When he lost the case, he vowed to preserve the spirit of the sanctuary policy by notifying city workers that they weren't obligated to cooperate.

We have now learned that indifference to the laws of this country has a cost. September 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta got back into the country after overstaying his previous visa, which he shouldn't have been granted in the first place, since he had previously met with Iraqi intelligence officials. Previous terrorists have found safe harbor in New York despite being in the country illegally: Mahmud Abouhalima, one of the masterminds of the 1993 World Trade Center attack, got a hack license from the Taxi and Limousine Commission in 1986, even though his visa had expired. By the time he fraudulently got a green card in 1999, under an amnesty program for farmworkers, he had already begun collaborating with El Sayed Al Nosair, the assassin of Rabbi Meir Kahane and collaborator in the 1993 trade-center attack.

Albany legislators should quickly pass a spate of long-ignored bills, many sponsored by State Senator Frank Padavan, cracking down on immigration fraud. A top priority should be to forbid undocumented aliens from attending state universities and to require those schools to verify the legal status of all students. Also essential are proposed laws requiring police agencies to cooperate with the INS and forbidding the issuance of driver's licenses to illegal aliens. Nationally, the country needs to implement an electronic identification card, encoding biometric information like fingerprints to prevent immigration and identity fraud.

Though intelligence is the best weapon against terrorism, physical security in buildings and public spaces needs strengthening as well. Manhattan needs far better screening at its bridges and tunnels to prevent truck bombs from entering the city; that means finally requiring all truck deliveries to be made at night, over dedicated bridges with far tighter security checks than currently exist. The city's traffic congestion would be immeasurably improved, and the extra cost in services and goods would be easily recovered in greater citizen confidence and improved mobility.

Given the ready availability of bomb ingredients, some truck bombs may be manufactured within Manhattan to avoid detection. Landmark buildings should be protected by concrete bollards or planters at the perimeter to fend off vehicle access; trucks making deliveries should be thoroughly inspected outside the building and their delivery status verified before they enter any loading docks.

Increased patrol presence in Manhattan should be maintained indefinitely, both to deter crime and to boost public confidence. Any uniformed officers still holding desk jobs that could be handled by civilians should be on the streets; the city should revise any union rules to the contrary. Patrols with bomb-sniffing dogs should become routine in crowded areas and in subway stations.

The price tag for protecting the city against future attacks will be high. New York will have to revamp its traditional priorities; it can no longer afford to maintain a cradle-to-grave welfare state that rewards dysfunction and penalizes productivity. Private business will face higher security costs to maintain a Manhattan location; couple that additional spending with the city's sky-high taxes, and many businesses will decide to decamp (or never come in the first place). To prevent that exodus, the city must avoid any tax increases—or, better yet, lower taxes. It can only do so, given the expense of heightened security, by cutting spending in other areas.

Eight years ago, no one would have believed that the NYPD could possibly cut crime by 60 percent—but it did. There is no reason to fear that it cannot rise to this challenge, as well.

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