How New York City fights terror now

Just after dawn, more than 75 police cars race to Times Square, lights flashing, then converge in what's called "combat fashion." Each backs halfway onto the sidewalk in a daunting show of municipal muscle and readiness.

Across town on the Gowanus Expressway, three heavily armored SUVs suddenly pull over. Helmeted antiterrorism officers jump out and survey the Brooklyn scene around them, guns cocked and ready.

Meanwhile, in Lyon, France, a New York Police Department detective is being briefed on Interpol's latest terrorist intelligence and immediately relays it back to One Police Plaza in Manhattan.

NYPD intelligence gathering and drills such as these happen every day. Five years after 9/11, New York has emerged as an international leader in urban security and counterterrorism measures. On any given day, more than 1,000 uniformed officers are tasked with ensuring that New York City – still the world's No. 1 terrorist target, according to analysts – is doing everything in its power to prevent another attack. Indeed, the city's police department has developed a wide variety of tactics, from positioning detectives abroad to reaching out to the Muslim community at home.

Terrorism experts applaud the city's approach in part because of this comprehensive nature. That reflects a growing consensus among security analysts that five years after 9/11, the United States must readjust its thinking and behavior in the fight against terror: It should not only continue to implement on-the-ground security measures, they say, but it should also reaffirm and cultivate bedrock American values that could counterbalance terrorist efforts.

"In the final analysis, our security is not going to be a matter of barriers and bollards and electronic surveillance or keeping shampoo from carry-on luggage," says terrorism expert Brian Jenkins, who created the terrorism unit at RAND Corp. more than 30 years ago. "It is really going to be found in our own courage and our continuing commitment to our own values and the rule of law – our sense of community, our tolerance, our historic traditions of self-reliance and resilience."

That spirit of self-reliance is what motivated New York to create its unique counterterrorism and intelligence units within the police department, as well as to post detectives in 10 different countries.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly says the city had no choice, if it wanted to protect itself. "I would like to think we perfect and hone our skills virtually every day," says Commissioner Kelly. "But we're not in a position to declare success."

New York now spends $200 million a year on counterterrorism measures – most of it coming from the city's coffers, not the federal government.

"The approach taken by the city of New York is absolutely essential," says Michael Greenberger, director of the University of Maryland's Center on Health and Homeland Security. "On a broad array of issues, the federal government has let the states and cities down."

But federal government has also increased its homeland security spending to an estimated $49 billion this year, up from $20 billion five years ago. According to the White House, those increased funds have helped transform the federal government so that it is now "better informed of terrorist threats, with improved intelligence collection."

"Over the past five years, we have waged an unprecedented campaign against terror at home and abroad, and that campaign has succeeded in protecting the homeland," President Bush told the Georgia Public Policy Foundation in Atlanta last week in the final of three speeches addressing the national threat five years after 9/11. "At the same time ... we've seen that the extremists have not given up on their dreams to strike our nation."

That is foremost in the minds of independent terrorism experts. They acknowledge that progress has been made, but they contend that the federal government still hasn't addressed huge gaps in the nation's security, from a lack of screening of cargo on passenger planes to failures to properly "harden" and protect the nation's nuclear and chemical plants.

"We're not doing enough, quickly enough, in almost every area," says Lee Hamilton, vice chair of the 9/11 commission and president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "We're now going about things with a 'business as usual' attitude, without the sufficient urgency that I think is warranted."

At a conference called "Rethinking the Future Since September 11th" at Pace University, located a few blocks from ground zero, Mr. Hamilton argued that security needs to include more than physical protection and integrate such things as foreign policy, community outreach, and economic and educational opportunity. Others agree, and are concerned that some current US policies will in the long term make the nation less secure. Such policies include the extrajudicial detention of enemy combatants and the widespread use of wiretapping without prior court approval.

Analysts point to two ways in which they believe they undermine security: first, by deeply polarizing the country during a time of war, when it should be unified, and second, by alienating the international community and discouraging international cooperation.

"To the extent that we're seen as setting precedents ... that do not give full commitment to a system of law, to the protection of human and civil rights, to the Geneva Conventions, I think that will come back to haunt us over time," says David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

Mr. Bush this week defended his administration's handling of the war on terror as both legal and necessary. He also publicly acknowledged that the administration used secret prisons overseas to detain some high-value terrorist suspects.

"The procedures were tough, and they were safe and lawful and necessary," he said to a gathering in the White House last week.

Some experts question that contention. The same day the president made his speech, the Pentagon forbade the use of at least eight of the interrogation tactics Bush defended. The Supreme Court has ruled the Bush administration's handling of enemy combatants at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, violates the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. A federal district court has also ruled that the warrantless wiretapping program is unconstitutional, a finding that the Bush administration is appealing.

Still, Dr. Jenkins of RAND says that even if the use of extreme measures would bring a quick end to the war on terror, "then we'd have an interesting moral discussion."

He and other experts believe the fight against terrorism could last a generation or more. "Putting aside considerations of morality and legality, for reasons of strategy we shouldn't [use such extreme measures]," he says. "Preserving our values is what gives us the moral strength that is going to enable us to defeat our enemy in the war of ideas, as well as on the battlefield. It's those values that are going to maintain the popular support [here and abroad]."

New York City is also struggling to find the right balance between civil rights and security. Civil libertarians have complained that the NYPD policy of randomly searching bags in the subways violates individual rights, and they sued the city. Last August, a federal appeals court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the bag searches, saying they were an effective antiterrorist tool. At the time, Kelly called it a "victory for common sense."

Eyes on New York

New York City has the most extensive urban counterterrorism operation in the world, terrorism experts say. Here are three routine examples of how the New York Police Department works to deter attacks on the city.

• A police helicopter hovers above the Hudson River, and a high-tech surveillance camera on board zooms in on a man with equipment working on the Brooklyn Bridge. The NYPD officer enlarges the photo to identify the logo on the man's shirt and calls it in. The goal: to confirm that the bridge worker is indeed an authorized repairman – not a terrorist planting a bomb.

• A sergeant conducting a radiological sweep on the subway in Queens picks up elevated levels, just before the start of the US Open. An alert goes out. The area is cordoned off and checked. The cause turns out to be a patient returning from a radiological medical treatment, not a jihadist carrying a weapon of mass destruction.

• Before the Queen Mary 2 cruises into New York Harbor, she's met by a police boat. Several police officers board and join the captain on the bridge. The goal: to ensure no one commandeers the world's grandest luxury liner as she docks.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to How New York City fights terror now
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today