Securing the City


in Bombs and rockets, Books and literature, Law, Politics, Security

Stairs outside the National Gallery, Ottawa

Christopher Dickey’s Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counterterror Force – the NYPD describes the evolution of New York’s counterterrorism capabilities following the 2001 attacks against the World Trade Centre. Much of the responsibility is attributed to Raymond Kelly, who still serves as Police Commissioner, and David Cohen, his intelligence chief. Key among the changes was the development of much greater intelligence capabilities: everything from officers posted with federal agencies and overseas to developing a broad array of linguists, radiation detection systems, and advanced helicopter optics. All in all, the NYPD developed capabilities to become a mini-CIA, while also strengthening their policing and tactical capacity. All this was done in the face of considerable bureaucratic resistance, particularly from the federal agencies who felt their role was being subverted by the new developments.

Much more than Fred Burton’s book, Securing the City considers the checks and balances associated with greater police power. For instance, Dickey discusses the intelligence operations against people protesting the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004. Dickey also makes passing reference to torture and rendition (without considering the ethics of either at length), as well as surveillance and entrapment-type operations where intelligence officers pretend to help advance terrorist plots, so as to incriminate the others involved. Dickey comes to the general conclusion that the new NYPD capabilities are justified, given the situation in which the city finds itself. He does, however, worry if those capabilities will be properly maintained as budgetary pressures tighten, or when Kelly and the other key architects leave.

Some of the book’s chapters break out from the broad narrative to discuss specific topics, such as weapons of mass destruction or the dangerousness of ‘lone wolf’ operatives who operate independently and without the links to others that make most attackers detectable. While such treatment does make sense, the placement of the chapters can make the book feel a bit randomly assembled at times. Similarly, long italic passages (several pages long) are annoying to read. One other complaint is that the book includes a massive number of names, which can be difficult to keep track of. A listing of ‘characters’ with a brief description of the importance of each would be a nice addition to the front materials.

Dickey is harshly critical of the Iraq war, arguing that is was a distraction that undermined American security. He also argues that the ‘Global War on Terror’ was deeply misguided: “dangerously ill-conceived, mismanaged, and highly militarised.” He is also critical of Rudolf Guliani, who he accuses of taking credit for the successes of others, as well as making poor decisions of his own. His general position on the risk of terrorism is an interesting one. Basically, he thinks the capabilities of Al Qaeda and their sympathizers to carry out attacks in the U.S. has been exaggerated, as demonstrated by just how inept most of the post-9/11 plots were. Nevertheless, he sees the consequences of a terrorist attack as being so severe that even dubious plans being made by incompetent terrorists need to be tracked down and broken up. He repeatedly cites the example of the first World Trade centre bombing, where an inept group failed to advance their aims until Ramzi Yousef joined them and carried their operation to completion. Because of this, he agrees with Burton in thinking that terrorism cannot be treated primarily as a criminal matter. The standard of collecting courtroom-usable evidence is too high to disrupt plots early and effectively, while maintaining the covert capacity to do so again.

Overall, Securing the City is a worthwhile read for those with an interest in security, intelligence, or policing. It’s a nice demonstration of the global importance of some cities in the present age, and the special characteristics of New York. In particular, he praises the role of immigration in the city, citing it as one of the reasons why the NYPD was able to assemble such a diverse and effective capability. Those wanting more context in which to think about the strategic, tactical, and ethical issues surrounding modern terrorism would be well served by giving this book a read.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

. August 31, 2009 at 12:00 pm

Counter-terrorism in America
NYPD’s fighting force

Feb 12th 2009
From The Economist print edition
The NYPD offers an alternative to the highly militarised war on terror

R.K. September 1, 2009 at 1:01 pm

Even with all of this, it seems inevitable that New York will be attacked again in one way or another. Hopefully the response then will be sane (more effective policing, as above) rather than totally irrational (invade an unrelated country!).

Milan September 2, 2009 at 2:20 pm

No approach could fully protect New York. Indeed, even trying to an excessive extent would destroy the open character of the city.

That being said, there is obviously a lot that law enforcement can do. Also, there is a capacity to learn from the mistakes of the past. Finally, given what a debacle the Iraq war turned out to be, it seems very unlikely the American public would tolerate a repetition.

. September 6, 2009 at 2:23 pm

Are passengers safe from terrorists?
The TSA wastes a lot of time and money on an inefficient fight against the wrong enemy

By Patrick Smith

The novelty of the Sept. 11 attacks notwithstanding, the primary threat to commercial planes is, was and shall remain the smuggling aboard of explosives, which is what happened on Pan Am 103. The bomb came onboard in a suitcase. The hijack paradigm changed forever on 9/11, rendering the inflight takeover concept unworkable for a terrorist.

In any case, and in spite of the Transportation Security Administration’s best efforts, there are limitless ways to sneak knives and other dangerous materials past guards; not to mention, a deadly weapon can be fashioned from just about anything, including plenty of materials found on airplanes. (I’ll point out that even maximum-security prisons are unable to eliminate knives and contraband.) Yet whether by virtue of incompetence or willful ignorance, TSA continues to waste untold time and untold millions of dollars on a tedious, zero-tolerance fixation with blades and sharps. This does nothing to make us safer, and in fact draws security resources away from worthy pursuits.

Am I the only one who finds it maddening, and even a little scary, that we can’t get this right? Is it not a national disgrace that TSA should spend its time confiscating butter knives from uniformed pilots rather than focusing on deadly threats with a long historical precedent?

. October 28, 2009 at 10:12 am

Defending Manhattan
Extending the ring of steel

Oct 8th 2009 | NEW YORK
From The Economist print edition
New York expands its counterterrorism monitoring system

Bruce Schneier, a security guru, calls this “cover-your-ass security”, not unlike taking off shoes at airports. He worries that the ring of steel will not deter attackers, but merely force them to change targets. It is far better, he says, to invest in security that defends against a broad spectrum of attacks, namely “intelligence, investigation and emergency response”. These three tactics led to the arrest of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan immigrant, who pleaded not guilty last month to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction in New York.

“Hiring Arabic translators doesn’t get you votes,” says a cynical Mr Schneier. But to be fair to the NYPD, recruits who are native speakers of languages such as Arabic, Pushtu and Bengali are often assigned to counter-terrorism duties. Mr Kelly starts every morning with a counter-terrorism briefing. His force has assigned 1,000 of its officers to the task of fighting terrorism and sends officers from the outer boroughs to patrol potential midtown targets, such as buildings belonging to financial firms. The struggle goes on.

. November 4, 2009 at 5:10 pm

TrapWire is a unique, predictive software system designed to detect patterns of pre-attack surveillance and introduce the basis for a paradigm shift in the methodologies traditionally applied to securing critical infrastructure and personnel; a paradigm shift from the currently accepted and widely adopted philosophy of damage mitigation through increased physical security to a new and proactive approach of attack prevention through the identification and disruption of pre-attack planning and surveillance activities.

TrapWire was specifically designed to enable security personnel and law enforcement officials to detect patterns of behavior and anomalies indicative of pre-attack surveillance activity and to issue threat warnings in sufficient time to prevent an attack. A unique rules-based engine encapsulates terrorist surveillance methodologies and employs them to analyze suspicious event reports as they are collected over periods of time and across multiple locations. Through the systematic capture of suspicious events and the correlation of those events with activities recorded by public and private facilities across a network, terrorist or criminal surveillance operations can be identified, appropriate law enforcement counter measures employed, and steps taken to apprehend the perpetrators, thereby preventing the attack.

. May 12, 2010 at 1:26 pm

That said, the NYPD has upped its game since the 2001 attacks. It has increased the number of detectives on its joint task-force with the FBI from 17 to 120. It has hired David Cohen, a former senior CIA spook, to head its counter-terrorism outfit. It has posted detectives to Abu Dhabi, Amman, London and elsewhere. It has hired native speakers of Arabic, Dari, Persian, Urdu, Pushtun and Bengali. Since 2001 New York has been the focus of at least 11 foiled plots, which included plans to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge and the world’s most famous stock exchange.”

. July 12, 2010 at 10:02 am

‘Too few ethnic minority officers’ hired by GCHQ

Britain’s secret eavesdropping centre, GCHQ, has been criticised for failing to recruit enough ethnic minority staff to help fight terrorism.

An official report, leaked to the Sunday Times, also said black and Asian intelligence officers had complained of discrimination at the complex in Cheltenham, in Gloucestershire.

A GCHQ spokesman told the BBC policies and practices were now being improved.

Much of GCHQ’s work involves monitoring calls and e-mails from terror suspects.

But the report, authorised by the head of the civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell, says a lack of officers with specialist knowledge of languages like Urdu and Arabic is hampering efforts to spot codes and cultural nuances in intercepted conversations.

“It is critical to have a diverse staff group who are able to profile and recognise certain behaviour patterns and communications,” the document says.

The report recommends better engagement with ethnic minority communities in order to boost recruitment and improve the image of the organisation.

“This is critical to good national security intelligence,” it adds.

. October 18, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Growing Concern Over the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Methods

By Scott Stewart | October 13, 2011

In response to the 9/11 attacks, the New York Police Department (NYPD) established its own Counter-Terrorism Bureau and revamped its Intelligence Division. Since that time, its methods have gone largely unchallenged and have been generally popular with New Yorkers, who expect the department to take measures to prevent future attacks.

Preventing terrorist attacks requires a much different operational model than arresting individuals responsible for such attacks, and the NYPD has served as a leader in developing new, proactive approaches to police counterterrorism. However, it has been more than 10 years since the 9/11 attacks, and the NYPD is now is facing growing concern over its counterterrorism activities. There is always an uneasy equilibrium between security and civil rights, and while the balance tilted toward security in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it now appears to be shifting back.

. March 23, 2012 at 8:03 am

Documents show NYPD infiltrated liberal groups (3:03)

Washington Post

Mar. 23, 2012 – Documents show the New York Police Department has infiltrated liberal political groups and kept intelligence files on activists.

. April 1, 2012 at 4:03 pm

A snoop too far
Has New York’s police department crossed a line?

BECAUSE of the September 2001 attacks, the New York Police Department has become a sophisticated counter-terrorism agency. In the decade since then the NYPD has increased the number of detectives on a joint task-force it has long operated with the FBI from 17 to more than 100. It hired a former senior CIA spook to head its intelligence division. Detectives have been posted all over the world, in Abu Dhabi, Amman, Israel, London and Madrid, among other places.

Scores of native speakers of around 50 languages, including Arabic, Dari, Persian, Urdu, Pushtu and Bengali, have been hired—some say the NYPD has more Arabic speakers than the FBI. It has, at times, irritated both the CIA and the FBI, who are jealous guardians of their turf. But the results have spoken for themselves. Several plots to devastate New York have been foiled, including plans to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge, the stock exchange and Times Square.

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