Here’s a way to feel better about the Department of Homeland Security’s evident disregard for the safety of New Yorkers, not to mention Washingtonians. Years ago, New York Knicks Basketball fans found a way to turn unfairness to their advantage. It was the early 90’s, part of the Larry Bird/Robert Parish Boston Celtics era. Game after game, the Knicks, led by Patrick Ewing, would be fouled, sometimes flagrantly, by the contemptuous Who-Me? Celtics. Rather than complain, Coach Pat Riley’s Knicks just kept doing their thing, playing with the knowledge that their only option was to play better basketball, to make up in talent for the calls against them. They couldn’t rely upon a fair game. So they didn’t. They compensated. And more often than not, they got the job done, winning 15 of 19 games against the Celtics between 1991 and 1994 and two out of four division titles.
In the current debate with Homeland Security, this should be the model for the New York City Police Department. In many ways, it already has been. The new DHS budget cuts for NYC, down 40 per cent from last year is merely an indication of a broader, remarkably consistent story. The truth is that since the establishment of DHS in 2003, New York City has essentially been on its own. Repeated conversations with New York counterterrorism officials between 2003 and 2005 convinced me that the NYPD’s relationship with Homeland Security was of no practical significance. Meetings take place between lower level officials, but the head of Homeland Security is not in regular contact with the counterterrorism folks at the NYPD. This seems to be a fairly serious flaw in the system. Especially when Michael Chertoff has implicitly acknowledged what all leading experts on Al Qaeda assert, namely, that the most commonly cited U.S. target in terrorist chatter is New York City.
One could debate the rhetoric of DHS in justifying its longstanding policy of minimizing support to New York City. For example, even if New York City did not house any monuments of national significance, the City itself is a monument of national significance, where almost any target will do. One could laugh at the insistence that the City filed its papers the wrong way and at the DHS refusal to express any shame over a policy in which bureaucratic rules take precedence over the merits of national security.
But rather than resort to such all-too-easy ridicule, or to the facile explanation of pork-barrel politics, it would serve us well, as New Yorkers and as Americans, to consider the possibility that DHS has developed its tight-fisted policy towards New York City for a reason. Maybe this isn’t just a mistake or an oversight. Maybe the anti-New York policy is intentional and has a basis in vastly different approaches to counterterrorism. Looking at DHS and NYPD policies, the following points of difference seem worthy of consideration.
First: Gadgetry versus Human Resources. DHS expenditures reveal a penchant for gadgets and technology, for material expenditures to fight terror, be they the now famous air-conditioned garbage trucks or body armor for fire department dogs. Its Strategic Plan and its various press releases emphasize technology, equipment and training, ostensibly for the use of these new technologies. But technology can be a feel-good yet ineffective panacea. By contrast, the NYPD Counterterrorism strategy has emphasized the need for human capacity. The City officials’ reasoning is that the more eyes and ears there are on the ground, the safer the City is. Homeland Security has been outspoken in its opposition to this labor-intensive tactic, complaining, for example, about the use of funds for “overtime” hours. DHS has also opposed Operation Atlas which deploys hundreds of police officers at a time. When appropriate, that is, when it is suited to likely targets, New York has welcomed technology, but not as a substitute for understanding the evolving threat and human intelligence gathering. As we learned from 9/11, and as counterterrorism police around the world, from Israel to London will tell you, there is no substitute for human intelligence and human resources. The only “magic” that accompanies gadgetry is a false sense of security.
Second: Prevention as separable from Catastrophe Response. One of the fundamental elements of DHS from the start has been the mingling of general catastrophe response efforts and preventive efforts. The agency is both border security and homeland disaster response agency and its budget reflects an unwillingness to distinguish readily between the two. The NYPD Counterterrorism Unit has long emphasized the distinctiveness of counterterrorism. This is a discreet area of expertise devoted to successful prevention of terrorism. Confusing prevention and response, overlapping border security and disaster relief, can only dilute the effectiveness of Homeland Security, which is in the unenviable role of promising all things to all people yet satisfying few.
Third: In Search of a Team Player. The NYPD has essentially been a lone player since 9/11. It has its own research teams, its own strategic plans and even its own agents, for intelligence purposes, assigned to several cities around the world. DHS seems very much to want to be the point agency on national security, which is as it should be. But it has also seemed willing to impede the independent measures that New York City has taken in order to be effective. The fact is that the City has had little choice in the matter. Whether DHS likes it or not, the NYPD, without supportive partnership, must act on its own.
Fourth: Our Way or No Way. In a related, but separate operational matter, the DHS seems to want to craft its national security strategy without a true consideration of organized coordination of information and resources across the country. For consultation and coordination with other cities, New York City is left to its own personal relationships rather than being able to join a DHS-created national policy conversation. There is to date no best practices database at DHS which catalogues and disseminates information about critical infrastructure for example in Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. A system for sharing of intelligence has failed as well. DHS’s nationwide electronic system for disseminating intelligence and information to state and local law enforcement agencies, and for state and local agencies to share among themselves, is apparently not operational. The FBI, and personal relationships nationwide, remain the NYPD’s only access to classified intelligence and critical infrastructure awareness. Without coordinated information sharing, the effectiveness of the nation’s security is unquestionably reduced.
Fifth: Threat Assessment, not Politics. Good threat assessment is essential to effective counterterrorism. Allocating significant counterterrorism funds to low-risk regions and cities can compromise the overall integrity of a nation’s counterterrorism strategy. Here again, New York has often tried to stick to the merits rather than grant favors. A leading official at the NYPD once told me, “You would not believe the kinds of requests we get citing fear of terrorism as a reason for a special favor. Parking, for example. For cultural centers, businesses and more. They ask for the streets to be cleared and say it is for safety; in essence, it’s for their convenience. We don’t yield to this.” Political considerations, in other words, are kept out of security policy decisions. DHS’s refusal to prioritize its expenditures based on serious threat assessments is a scandal. Are radiological detectors in the midwest and Alaskan night vision goggles really more urgently needed than surveillance security on Wall Street?
Alarming about the DHS public rebuke towards New York is not just the agency’s contempt for New York or its apparent disregard for operational input. The shortchanging of the country’s primary terrorist target is most disturbing for what it reveals about DHS’s half-baked approach to counterterrorism. Good counterterrorism is about human intelligence, about coordination, and above all about serious consideration of the potential threats. It is not about spin, or about who has the most control, the most toys, or the most political favors to dispense.
The nation would do well to take a page from the book of the New York City Police Department and to reconsider the mission and priorities of DHS. Meanwhile, the City, following the Knicks of yore, will continue to do what is necessary and mount the most effective strategic defense that it can, given the vacuum of leadership from Washington. Adequate federal funds would be of immeasurable help, but even without them, the City will do its best to make New Yorkers safe. The difference now is that the taxpayers of New York rather than the federal government will bear the burden of safety. Still, none of us should overlook the fact that in rising to the occasion, New Yorkers will be protecting the country as well as themselves. For there should be no mistake about it: another attack on New York City will harm the nation as a whole. Osama bin Laden understands this. Why doesn’t Michael Chertoff?
Karen J. Greenberg is the Executive Director of NYU School of Law’s Center on Law and Security and editor of The Torture Papers, Al Qaeda Now and the NYU Review of Law and Security.