An armor-clad Big Apple

Call it Fort New York.

Street barricades are going up, heavily armed antiterror squads are making unannounced rounds, bomb-sniffing dogs are inspecting cars and trucks, Coast Guard boats are patrolling the Hudson, and new high-tech helicopters are hovering in the skies over Manhattan. That's not to mention the thousands of officers who've been taken off their desk jobs to ride the rails underground.

And the Republican convention doesn't even start until Monday.

In the ramp-up to what officials are calling the most "intense and comprehensive" security effort ever to protect a national political convention, the New York Police Department - in conjunction with the US Secret Service, state, and other federal agencies - are putting on a show of force designed to give any Al Qaeda operative pause.

While there's been no new intelligence indicating that a terrorist threat is imminent, the Joint Terrorism Task Force continues to comb through the hundreds of Al Qaeda files and computer disks discovered last month in Britain and Pakistan that indicated New York financial institutions had been thoroughly cased. They are also analyzing all new intelligence that comes in "24/7."

"We've been preparing intensely for threats like this for the last 2-1/2 years," says Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. "We can't say precisely what's coming or when, but we've never been better prepared than we are today."

Security experts from across the country are praising the city's overall effort from the comprehensive nature of the planning to its ability to keep key specifics of their security operation under wraps. But they caution, no matter how well-prepared police may be, terrorists have proven time and again to be wily and versatile. And New York presents more challenges than most cities because of its size, diversity, and insistence on maintaining business as usual.

Indeed, Mayor Bloomberg is urging people to come and enjoy the city, despite the convention and more than 100 planned protests, to say nothing of the ones promised by various anarchists.

Then there are the nonconvention events that will get under way next week, from the US Open Tennis Tournament to home series for both the Mets and the Yankees, a half marathon in Central Park, plus a number of concerts and other such cultural affairs. "There are so many events, and despite having the biggest police force in the world, there are still only so many folks you can put on the ground in one place," says Mark Moore, eastern region director of The Steele Foundation, an international security firm. "The softer the target the more vulnerable it is to these guys."

Mr. Moore contends that Al Qaeda has not "made its living" by hitting large, highly secure and scheduled events. The only time they tried recently was during the millennium, when Ahmed Rezzam, an Al Qaeda operative based in Canada, was arrested as he crossed into the US with a bomb in his car that he planned to detonate at the Los Angeles airport. But US intelligence agencies and the NYPD are taking seriously recent intelligence that indicates that Al Qaeda hoped to interrupt this fall's election.

"They know it's certainly a target, let's not forget what happened in Madrid before the elections," says Richard "Bo" Dietl, a security consultant to the Republican National Convention. "This is a threat that's really there and it's always going to be there now, and people have to realize that."

Many New Yorkers like Rabbi Shimon Grama are already quite accustomed to the regular armed presence and roadblocks near tunnels and bridges where trucks are stopped and checked. And like most New Yorkers he has an opinion about it. Rabbi Grama was once a sergeant major in the Israeli army, and while he applauds the NYPD for doing "almost everything they can," he also had a few concerns.

"I didn't see them checking gas tanks. In Israel, we had a simple stick that we put into the gas tank to see whether the depth is proper and sometimes we came across a situation with a fake bottom," he says. "Any terrorist who's going to come in, isn't going to put the bomb in the back of the truck, they're going to hide it in their gas tank."

But Detective Joe Putkowski, who's been a bomb technician with the NYPD for 16 years, says it's impossible to check every single truck that comes into the city. "New York has a unique situation that no other city has, we have all of these people and vehicles in and out, trucks double parked all over the place making deliveries," he says. "If we determine a truck is suspicious we run a dog around it, but there are certain things you don't have to do every time."

Detective Putkowski, like Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is confident that if there's trouble, the city will be prepared.

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