Thursday, October 11, 2012

The NYPD's CounterTerrorism Bureau

Craig Horowitz reports:

Buried deep in the heart of one of New York's outer boroughs, in an area inhabited by junkyards and auto-body shops, is an unmarked redbrick building that stands as an extraordinary symbol of police commissioner Ray Kelly's obsessive commitment to the fight against terrorism. Here, miles from Manhattan, is the headquarters of the NYPD's one-year-old counterterrorism bureau.

When you step through the plain metal door at the side of the building, it is like falling down the rabbit hole—you're transported from a mostly desolate, semi-industrial area in the shadow of an elevated highway into the new, high-tech, post-9/11 world of the New York City Police Department.

The place is so gleaming and futuristic—so unlike the average police precinct, with furniture and equipment circa 1950—that you half expect to see Q come charging out with his latest super-weapon for 007. Headlines race across LED news tickers. There are electronic maps and international-time walls with digital readouts for cities such as Moscow, London, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Islamabad, Manila, Sydney, Baghdad, and Tokyo.

In what is called the Global Intelligence Room, twelve large flat-screen TVs that hang from ceiling mounts broadcast Al-Jazeera and a variety of other foreign programming received via satellite. The Police Department's newly identified language specialists—who speak, among other tongues, Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, and Fujianese—sit with headphones on, monitoring the broadcasts.

There are racks of high-end audio equipment for listening, taping, and dubbing; computer access to a host of superdatabases; stacks of intelligence reports and briefing books on all the world's known terrorist organizations; and a big bulletin board featuring a grid with the names and phone numbers of key people in other police departments in this country and around the world.

The security area just inside the door is encased not only in bulletproof glass but in ballistic Sheetrock as well. The building has its own backup generator (everyone learned the importance of redundancy on September 11); and the center is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Even the 125 cops in the bureau (hand-picked from nearly 900 applicants) look a little sharper. Some are in dark-navy polo shirts that bear the counterterrorism-bureau logo, and others are in suits that seem to be a cut above the usual discount-warehouse version of cop fashion.

Though the counterterrorism bureau is still in its infancy, law-enforcement officials from around the U.S. and overseas regularly come to see it and learn. And it was all put together practically overnight—it opened in February of last year, little more than a month after Ray Kelly was sworn in as police commissioner.

The bureau, along with the NYPD's totally revamped intelligence division, and the high-level hires from Washington—a lieutenant general from the Pentagon and a spymaster from the CIA—is part of Kelly's vision to remake the NYPD into a force that can effectively respond to the world's dangerous new realities.

There are now New York City police officers stationed in London working with New Scotland Yard; in Lyons at the headquarters of Interpol; and in Hamburg, Tel Aviv, and Toronto. There are also two cops on assignment at FBI headquarters in Washington, and New York detectives have traveled to Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, and the military's prison at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba to conduct interrogations. 

Members of the department's command staff have also attended sessions at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

And there are the Hercules Teams, elite, heavily armed, Special Forces–type police units that pop up daily around the city. It can be at the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square, or the stock exchange, wherever the day's intelligence reports suggest they could be needed. These small teams arrive in black Suburbans, sheathed in armor-plated vests and carrying 9-mm. submachine guns—sometimes with air or sea support. Their purpose is to intimidate and to very publicly mount a show of force. Kelly knows that terrorists do a lot of reconnaissance, and the Hercules Teams were designed to disrupt their planning. Like an ADT warning sign in front of a house, they're also intended to send a message that this is not an easy target.

The police commissioner now has what's called an STU (Secured Telephone Unit) on his desk. It is a phone line that enables him to talk to someone in the White House or the Pentagon without fear of being monitored. When a key on the phone is turned, the conversation is electronically encrypted.

Every morning at eight, in the commissioner's conference room on the top floor of police headquarters (another NYPD venue where, by the way, you can watch Al-Jazeera), Kelly is briefed by his two key players in the counterterrorism battle: Lieutenant General Frank Libutti, who runs the department's counterterrorism bureau, and David Cohen, formerly No. 4 at the CIA, who is now in charge of the NYPD's intelligence division.

Job one for the new bureau is threat assessment on landmarks, public and private properties, and the city's infrastructure. The bureau has nine five-man teams, whose members were schooled at the federal law-enforcement training center in Georgia.

These teams could, for example, look at the Brooklyn Bridge, a Con Ed plant, or the offices of New York Magazine. Once an inspection is complete, the team produces a written report that includes detailed security suggestions. Though most of the sites are chosen by the bureau based on risk level, some are done by request. This process has helped the department establish closer ties to the business community.

The counterterrorism bureau also does independent intelligence analysis. The focus is on techniques. If two suicide bombers in a row in Israel are wearing Columbia ski jackets, for example, they'll identify the marker and issue an alert so cops here are aware of this.

"When we got here, there was no counterterrorism doctrine for a city like New York," he says in a faint Boston accent. "There was no playbook, no manual you could turn to and say, 'We should do two of these and a couple of the things in that chapter, and we have now built our counterterrorism program.' The process for us has been to write and implement the playbook simultaneously. And it's like trying to change the tires on a speeding car."

The relationship between the FBI and the NYPD has probably never been more critical than it is right now. The FBI-NYPD Joint Terrorism Task Force is one of the key instruments in the effort to protect the city. The task force was a relatively sleepy backwater run by the FBI but made up of both agents and detectives. One of Kelly's earliest moves was to pump up the number of detectives from 17 to 125, a huge commitment that the FBI matched. Kelly's intensity and his willingness to push the envelope were demonstrated early on when he tried to muscle control of the JTTF away from the FBI. According to sources, Kelly and Libutti sent a two-star police chief named Phil Pulaski over to the JTTF, which is housed at the FBI's New York headquarters.

Pulaski is generally viewed within the NYPD as brilliant—he designed and set up the police lab. However, as one cop put it to me, he also has a "Ph.D. in pissing people off." So he trooped over to the JTTF and told them, after the FBI had been in charge for over twenty years, that he was now the boss. Though you can imagine the reaction by the Feds, Donovan managed to maintain his cool and prevent a truly damaging explosion.

But the response from the two sides when this episode is brought up is perhaps more revealing than the incident itself. "Pulaski had a job to do," says the FBI's Joseph Billy. "He had to integrate a large number of detectives into the task force, and he's a very results-oriented individual. There was some tension, but it all worked out. The FBI is still the lead agency for the JTTF."

The most obvious tests of Kelly's new counterterrorism strategy are large public events. And two months ago, with several hundred thousand people gathered in Times Square for New Year's Eve, the pressure was really on the commissioner and the NYPD. They had executed what Kelly calls their "counterterrorism overlay package." Undercovers were everywhere. Intelligence officers mingled in the crowd. Sharpshooters were on the rooftops. Police boats were on the water, choppers were overhead, and Hercules Teams were ready to move.

Kelly also had the department's Archangel package in place, which includes ESU teams equipped to detect a chemical or biological attack and to respond if one does in fact occur.

The five days leading up to the celebration had been especially difficult. There were intelligence reports detailing serious harbor threats, including information about a possible plan to stage eight separate diversionary acts culminating with a major terrorist attack. All the locations were covered. The water had an eerie, blacker-than-usual look to it because it was mostly empty. No pleasure boats were allowed out.

Police had also been looking for the five men who might have come across the border from Canada using illegal documents. Michael John Hamdani, the Pakistani document forger under arrest in Toronto, told the NYPD detective who interrogated him about the men. This prompted the FBI to instigate and then call off a nationwide manhunt. Hamdani, however, didn't say they were terrorists, just that they were trying to sneak into the U.S. For Kelly, this highlighted what he believes is an ongoing alien-smuggling problem. Cops hit various locations around the city during the day, and several arrests were made.

Kelly also had credible intelligence that something might happen between Christmas and New Year's Day at the stock exchange. All week, Hercules Teams had been flooding the financial district. And then, of course, there was the gathering in Times Square itself.

"We were covering a lot of bases," says Kelly. "But we were addressing all these things appropriately. We all felt we'd done everything we could've reasonably done to make the night a safe one. You can really see the force and the power of the Police Department manifestly displayed on a night like New Year's Eve."

Via: "New York Magazine"

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