City Journal compares the counter-terrorism efforts of New York City and Los Angeles.
The NYPD created the best urban defense in depth against terrorist or military attacks. The NYPD created an international intelligence network to study and arrest terrorist cells. The LAPD is a model for cities without the NYPD budget who have to make do with less.
The ticking time bomb scenario is very unlikely. There are no Jack Bauer’s intercepting terrorist attacks at the last second. In reality, most intelligence work is done in the Middle East and Central Asia. A few guys are arrested in Pakistan early in the planning stages of an attack. The Pakistanis interrogate the prisoners until they reveal other members of the network. The network is quietly eliminated before they make any attacks.
This is a shadow war. It’s very similar to police work against gangs and tends to follow the same strategies.
Al-Qaeda realizes that it cannot easily attack Western cities with elite infiltration cells. They are relying more and more domestic radicals, who lack the skills to perform major strikes. The result is a series of botched attacks, like the car bombings in London, or the attempted bombings in New York.
There are a few ways cities can improve their defenses.
Fortifications: Concrete barriers can be placed at strategic locations to limit car bomb attacks against infrastructure. They are reasonably cheap and effective.
Point defense: This places guards at a single location like an airport, landmark building, or financial district. This is somewhat ineffective. It could potentially foil an attack at the last moment, but it is unlikely. Police presence provide psychological assurance to civilians. The truth is, police actually serve as first responders once the attack has taken place.
Attack Forces: SWAT, counter-terrorist agents, special detective squads and the similar organizations can rapidly arrest or kill a detected network long before they make their attack.
Domestic Intelligence: Police Departments create spy networks in the local community. They hire translaters, recruit civilian informants, share information with local business and religious leaders, infiltrate criminal or terrorist networks with undercover officers, etc.
The NYPD has gone further than any other city in the world.
Both have roving SWAT or “Emergency Service Unit” teams, equipped with gas masks and antidotes to chemical and biological agents. Both have set up “fusion” centers to screen threats and monitor secret intelligence and “open-source” information, including radical Internet sites, and both have started programs to identify and protect likely targets. Both have tried to integrate private security experts into their work. Both conduct surveillance that would have been legally questionable before September 11. Both have sought to enlist support from mainstream Muslims and have encouraged various private firms to report suspicious activity.
NYPD Commissioner Kelly has access to almost three times as many officers and resources as the LAPD. The NYPD expanded its Counter Terrorism Bureau and Intelligence Division and added over 1000 men to the job.
Much of the work protects Downtown Manhattan and its valuable Financial District:
Kelly is weighing a plan to erect a “ring of steel”—cameras, random screenings, and sophisticated sensors like those that London installed after its own subway and bus terror attacks in 2005—to help protect the 1.5-square-mile district and its 1 trillion daily financial transactions. The city is also spending $250 million to install cameras in its subway and transit system.
I’m ambivalent about cameras. They don’t prevent crimes or attacks. They can help police identify suspects afterwards.
Point defenses are the most visible protection but the real star is the expansive NYPD Intelligence Network. It’s probably the best in the country. Many Muslims enter American through New York, so the intel from one city is more significant than it seems.
The NYPD is cracking terrorist networks the same way they destroyed gangs: analyzing networks.
The cutting edge of the NYPD’s antiterrorism efforts, though, is David Cohen’s Intelligence Division. “We’re looking at ‘clusters,’ at how and where people get together, what they do and where they go, how they raise funds,” Kelly says during an interview at One Police Plaza. “This analytical work is not being done anywhere else in government. It’s all about prevention.”
Before September 11, the Intelligence Division mainly developed intelligence on narcotics and violent crimes, and sought to protect visiting dignitaries to the city—a glorified “escort service,” Kelly once scoffed. Now, its personnel devote 95 percent of their time to terrorism investigations, the PERF report concludes (and sources confirm). Kelly says that the division has 23 civilian intelligence analysts, with master’s degrees and higher from Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, and other universities; some have come from leading think tanks, even from the CIA—giving the force a capability, he says, “that exists no place else.” The division’s “field intelligence officers,” one assigned to each of the NYPD’s 76 precincts, keep tabs on people, crimes, and arrests that might have terrorism links. “Core Collection” officers develop confidential informants, who could give early warning about people being radicalized by militant associates or websites.
The NYPD understands that 9/11 originated outside of New York, so the police spy network extends across the East Coast. It operates overseas as well, especially in the Middle East and South America.
It works, for the record. The NYPD intercepted at least 7 terrorist attacks since 9/11.
Cohen’s division also supervises undercover agents who infiltrate potentially violent groups. The identities of these covert warriors, and other details of the program, remain fiercely guarded secrets. But information occasionally turns up in federal prosecutions, such as the NYPD’s use of an undercover agent in helping to foil the June JFK airport conspiracy, and of both a Bangladeshi undercover officer and an Egyptian-born confidential informant in disrupting a 2004 plot by Islamic terrorists to bomb the Herald Square subway station. “I want at least 1,000 to 2,000 to die in one day,” one of the accused told the informant in the subway case, a stunned New York jury heard last year. Though the men had not acquired explosives, police arrested them shortly before the Republican national convention in August 2004, after nearly two years of surveillance. The key plotter, Shahawar Matin Siraj, a 22-year-old Pakistani, recently received a 30-year sentence.
Police intelligence is growing in importances as Al-Qaeda relies on domestic terrorists. The Military used to help prevent AQAM attacks on CONUS by eliminating networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. No more. If terrorists are home-grown ideologues who are inspired by AQAM online, then intelligence duties fall to local police departments.