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Protecting New York

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eye on the news

Protecting New York

Born in the ashes of 9/11, the NYPD’s counterterrorism program remains the envy of the world. September 10, 2021
New York
Public safety

On the twentieth anniversary of September 11, 2001, as New Yorkers commemorate those who died in the nation’s most devastating terrorist attack, they can also take quiet pride in what hasn’t happened since then, or, as President Bill Clinton once put it, the dog that didn’t bark. Despite relentless attempts of varying levels of sophistication and competence, neither militant Islamists nor other hate-filled ideological or religious extremists have managed to stage a comparable attack on the city.

That is no accident. Thanks to an innovative, ambitious, and well-resourced counterterrorism program, the New York Police Department has foiled some 51 terrorist plots against the city since 9/11, at least 16 of them serious—more than those aimed at all other American cities combined. “Looking back, it really worked,” said former police commissioner Ray Kelly, credited with having spearheaded what is widely regarded as the gold standard of urban counterterrorism programs.

The ashes of the Twin Towers were still smoldering in January 2002, when newly elected mayor Michael Bloomberg tapped Kelly for a second tour of duty as New York’s top cop to create a program to protect New York’s 8 million people. “Having worked in Washington, D.C.,” Kelly recalled in a recent interview, “I knew the value, the tradecraft that resided there.” While he feared that “the city couldn’t depend on the Feds alone, I also knew we had to reach out.”

Much to the chagrin of some of the NYPD’s rank and file, Kelly’s top two counterterrorism deputies came from Washington. To lead the NYPD’s expanded Intelligence Division, he chose David Cohen, a former deputy director of the CIA’s operations wing who had helped create the agency’s Alec Station in 1996, which focused on Osama bin Laden before most Americans knew his name. Kelly also recruited Michael Sheehan, former State Department head of counterterrorism, to run the department’s new Counterterrorism Bureau. Determined to prevent another catastrophic attack, Kelly assigned more than 1,000 people to the units—a huge commitment for a department that on September 11, 2001, employed some 50,000 people, including about 36,000 sworn officers and 14,000 civilians.

But that was just the start. Before this effort could take hold, the NYPD’s counterterrorism triumvirate—Kelly, Cohen, and Sheehan—had to “move the NYPD into the 20th century,” Kelly said. “We purchased literally thousands of computers to replace memo pads and carbon paper.” The department mapped the city demographically so that police would know “where certain groups seemed to congregate, and where extremists trying to carry out attacks could blend in and hide,” Kelly said. “New York is the most diverse city in the world. We had to know who lived where, and not based just on a ten-year-old census.”

Then they began building the components of the effort that would revolutionize the NYPD itself and make its counterterror capabilities the envy of less well-resourced cities and states, both at home and abroad. An early program was Operation Shield, an effort to help local businesses assess and enhance their own security. At a memorable meeting at One Police Plaza, some 500 executives, small-business entrepreneurs, and security staff were briefed on wide-ranging potential threats. That day, the discussion focused on the chlorine bombs U.S. forces were then facing in Iraq, which the department feared might migrate to the city. At another session I attended, in 2006, more than 200 people listened in stunned silence as an NYPD lieutenant on the ground in Mumbai, India, discussed in horrific detail the simultaneous attacks on seven trains that killed more than 200 people and wounded hundreds more.

The department also created Operation Nexus, a program aimed at encouraging private businesses in the New York area to report suspicious purchases or other potential terrorism-related activities to the police. Over the next decade, the department visited more than 40,000 businesses in the New York area to follow-up on tips.

Another outreach program popular with law enforcement was Operation Sentry, the department’s 2006 effort to bring more law enforcement partners “into the game,” as Mike Sheehan, the late counterterrorism deputy, told me at the time. Remembering that the 9/11 attacks began not in New York but in Boston and Portland, Maine, Kelly began inviting law enforcement officials from counties and cities as far away as New Haven and Baltimore to discuss such challenges as the radicalization of young Muslims and how to spot signs of terror plots and extremism.

While several local police chiefs and sheriffs praised Sentry as “invaluable,” the Federal Bureau of Investigation increasingly resented what it viewed as the NYPD’s incursion onto its turf. Kelly ruffled FBI feathers again by dispatching NYPD detectives to foreign cities where terrorism was a concern: Tel Aviv, London, Paris, Madrid, and others. These “cop-to-cop” relations were a boon to both sides. “We learned from them, but they also learned a lot from us,” Kelly said.

While the NYPD and the FBI’s turf war simmered, some 40 local, state, and federal agencies were expanding the capabilities of New York’s “fusion center,” the first of its kind in the nation, where participants discussed threats and terror trends. Among its members was the Port Authority, in charge of New York’s massive public transportation system, used by 6.5 million riders daily. Quietly, Sheehan began adding NYPD officials to the FBI’s largest joint operating group in New York, the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Relations between the FBI and the Counterterrorism Bureau continued deteriorating until May 2005, when the FBI replaced its senior leadership in New York with officials determined to repair what they saw as a crucial partnership. Another turning point came in November of that year, when FBI director Robert Mueller III visited the NYPD for a private sit-down with Kelly. According to Joseph Demarest, Jr., who had taken over the counterterrorism division of the FBI’s New York field office, Mueller agreed with Kelly that New York’s program merited more running room. While some tensions remained—for instance, over New York’s desire to establish in Manhattan a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, where detectives could access secret and top-secret intelligence about potential threats to the city—relations gradually improved as the FBI and NYPD Counterterrorism Bureau increasingly shared tips and information.

The heart of New York’s program, and eventually its most controversial component, was David Cohen’s Intelligence Division. Cohen had quickly hired two dozen civilian intelligence analysts, most with master’s degrees and Ph.D.s from top universities. There were so many pedigreed analysts that Kelly began calling the division a “Council on Foreign Relations with guns.” Its mission, however, proved deadly serious, as it played a role in detecting and foiling plot after plot.

The division’s “field intelligence officers”—one of whom was assigned to each of the NYPD’s 76 precincts—kept track of suspicious people, crimes, and arrests that might have a link to terror. Its “core collection” officers developed the crucial confidential informants who gave the department early warnings about people being radicalized in a particular neighborhood by militant associates or websites. Cohen’s unit also oversaw the undercover agents—covert warriors who infiltrated violent groups. The department’s undercover work also benefited from the more than 850 civilian and uniformed foreign language specialists who spoke more languages than the FBI’s New York field office employed. Arabic, Albanian, Bengali, Farsi, Pashto, Turkish, and Urdu are just a few of the numerous languages spoken by cops, detectives, and agents recruited from some 65 countries. Their work also aided the department’s Cyber Intelligence Unit, which began as a 25-member group and has expanded steadily.

Much of the division’s initial work focused on protecting lower Manhattan, site of the Twin Towers attack and the home of 75 of the city’s 367 most sensitive sites. Kelly drafted a plan to erect his “ring of steel”—cameras, random screenings, and sophisticated sensors like those in London—to help protect the 1.5-square-mile district and its 1 trillion daily financial transactions. He also allotted an initial $250 million to install cameras in subways and the transit system, further expanding the program. Today, some 15,000 police cameras tied into police headquarters, many programmed with sophisticated algorithms enabling facial recognition and the detection of suspicious objects, help police monitor potential dangerous activity.

Tactics have evolved. The department has largely abandoned the Hercules exercises, which sent dozens of police vehicles and support cars to random spots in a display of force. But Kelly, for one, still defends the utility of these exercises. “I wanted the WOW factor,” Kelly explained. Such massing of force may well have led potential attackers to conclude that New York was just too tough a target. On the other hand, many cops working counterterrorism now get more training in firearms and other areas. And though the NYPD told critics of the demographics unit that the program was disbanded, cops say that the “area assessment unit” continues to perform similar functions. “You can’t prevent terrorism if you don’t know where a terrorist is likely to seek shelter or friendly contacts in a community,” one NYPD counterterrorism expert said.

The counterterrorism program also overcame another blow: a series of 30 Associated Press articles in 2011 and a 2013 book claiming to have “documented” the NYPD’s use of the program’s surveillance capabilities to spy “systematically” on Muslims—in their neighborhoods, mosques, and schools and colleges. The reporting suggested that the NYPD’s monitoring was illegal, unconstitutional, unnecessary, and an infringement on Muslims’ civil rights. But the series, which won the Pulitzer Prize and other awards, failed to document any illegality or excessive conduct. Nor did the reporting offer evidence that the NYPD’s efforts to understand the communities in which terrorists are more likely to hide and recruit violated anyone’s civil rights. The NYPD, which vehemently denied the allegations, continued doing what top officials considered essential to protect the city and its residents. A Quinnipiac poll conducted in 2012 showed that New Yorkers disagreed with the AP’s claim that the NYPD had “unfairly targeted Muslims.” Over 80 percent called the NYPD “effective in combatting terrorism.”

The program has survived and expanded because it enjoys strong support not only from New York residents but also from Washington (Department of Homeland Security funds have been a force multiplier) and a succession of mayors. Eric Adams, the likely successor to Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose own relations with the NYPD were often strained, won New York’s Democratic primary this summer largely by calling for enhanced security and law enforcement in the city and by defending the police.

Some worry that the recent criticism of alleged abusive tactics and racial profiling by cops, coupled with calls to “defund the police,” may erode the standing and capabilities of NYPD’s counterterrorism effort. Richard Falkenrath, for instance, who succeeded Mike Sheehan as deputy commissioner for counterterrorism, has expressed these concerns. Counterterrorism efforts, he said, require political buy-in and community trust, adequate resources, and having basic crime under control. New York’s rising crime rates and the persistent attacks on police conduct and funding, he said, meant that the trust he and other counterterrorism leaders enjoyed “is clearly very deeply eroded.”

Taking a different view, Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow for counterterrorism at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, does not believe that greater scrutiny of the police will harm the city’s counterterrorism effort. Professionals like John Miller, a respected veteran of the counterterrorism program and its current leader, are still in charge, he observed.

“The NYPD’s program is still the gold standard,” said Hoffman. “And ultimately, New Yorkers know that New York can’t afford to lower its guard.”

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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