Why you should care

If the former deputy director of the CIA says that New York’s counterrerrorism unit is like a crack foreign intelligence service, then it probably is. 

In just a few weeks, runners will show up in New York with their families, friends and fans for the city’s famous marathon, the world’s largest such race. In all likelihood, the media will soon take notice and raise concerns about whether we could see a repeat of last April’s tragedy in Boston, where the Tsarnaev brothers sprang their bloody surprise on the crowd gathered for the end of the Boston Marathon.

But here’s something you should know. Anyone who takes it into their head to attack the New York Marathon will have to elude detection by what in my view is the world’s most impressive municipal counterterrorist force: the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and its Intelligence Division.

This is to take nothing away from the Boston Police Department or the people of that great city, who made us all proud of the skill and resilience they displayed in apprehending their attackers and dealing with tragedy.

But the NYPD and its intelligence unit are in a class by themselves. In fact, I tend to think of that intelligence unit as the rough equivalent of a crack foreign intelligence service. In many respects, its structure and ethos mirror that of the CIA at its best.

This is no accident. The intelligence unit is headed by David Cohen, one of the most aggressive, smart and accomplished CIA officers I ever worked with. Cohen retired from the agency some years ago and went to work for the NYPD shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Cohen held senior positions in both the analytical and operational parts of the CIA and, in his last job, was the chief of the CIA’s worldwide clandestine operations. He’s an innovative, decisive, often controversial guy who, referring to his current work, once said publicly that if you could “start the CIA over in a post-9/11 world…this is what you would do.”

Meeting at the NYPD headquarters, terrorism unit.

New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly (R) takes part in his morning intelligence briefing with the Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism Richard Daddario (C) and Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen (L), August 2011

With the clear mission of preventing another 9/11, Cohen and his colleagues had to build into the department a strong emphasis on detection and disruption to equal the traditional law enforcement focus on arrest and prosecution. They built capabilities to do the same three things that an intelligence service like the CIA does: collect information, analyze it and operate beyond your borders.

The intelligence unit is staffed with investigators, including undercover officers, who pursue leads regarding terrorist radicalization, recruitment and planning. Its Operation Nexus deals directly with firms that buy, sell, inventory and transport any material that might be used in a terrorist operation – including the black powder and other ingredients used by the Tsarnaevs.

And the intelligence unit does not limit itself to the five boroughs of NYC. Working with an alliance of law enforcement officers it created after the 2005 London subway bombings – Operation Sentry, with 140 member agencies – the NYPD counterterrorism information exchange reaches from the Texas Rangers to the Lewiston, Maine, police department.

If a bomb goes off in a city overseas, the department immediately deploys officers to gauge the implications for New York – as they have done in Madrid, London, Mumbai and Tel Aviv. In fact, the department has officers stationed in close to a dozen foreign locations for precisely this purpose.

All of this information is funneled to a team of analysts who, very much like those at the CIA, are charged with building a mosaic that reveals patterns of threat to focus further activity. So analogous is this to classic spy work that I recommend the NYPD to my graduate students seeking hands-on experience in the intelligence field.

NYPD patrol Times Square in New York City.

Members of the NYPD Hercules team stand next to NYPD officers on patrol in Times Square, April 2013

Needless to say, not everyone embraces the department’s aggressive approach, particularly as memories of 9/11 fade. This is vividly on display in the ongoing court battles over the department’s “stop and frisk” policy, with some civil rights groups asserting that it amounts to racial/ethnic profiling. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a strong supporter, and the city has appealed a U.S. District Court ruling that ordered revision of the policy.

Does the intelligence unit’s aggressive approach guarantee that nothing bad can happen at the New York Marathon? Of course not. But someone attempting trouble has a greater chance of being caught than just about anywhere else in the nation.

A few years ago, I was in a CNN documentary on counterterrorism that also featured an interview with French magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguière, who has a reputation for toughness with terrorist suspects – as does the French legal system generally. I recall him saying dramatically and with a thick French accent: “If you are a terrorist, you had best not come to France!”

The same might very well be said today of New York City.

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