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Video: A ride along with NYPD counter-terror unit

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NBC News
updated 9/11/2007 9:05:23 PM ET 2007-09-12T01:05:23

On subway station platforms, on boats on New York Harbor, in unmarked helicopters above the city and on the beat in Muslim neighborhoods, a new breed of “NYPD Blue” is looking not just for drug dealers or burglars, but for terrorists.

Hit twice and threatened many more times, New York has developed a counter-terrorism division that supporters and critics both liken to a city version of the CIA.

It shouldn’t be surprising.  A total of 2,756 people have died in New York terrorist attacks over the past 15 years — six in the World Trade Center attack in February 1993 and the remainder on 9/11 as airliners crashed into those same towers.  Nor should it be surprising for a city that has long had its own radio station, television station and other facilities and services other cities can only dream of.

“We devote almost 1,200 police officers every day to our counter-terrorism initiatives,” says police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who was commissioner in 1993, then returned after 9/11 at the request of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  “No other city can do that, but again, no other city sees itself in the position that we do. We have been attacked here twice successfully, and there have been other plots against the city. So we are doing a lot — you can see it on the streets of the city.”

They're doing it under the streets and above them as well.

The Counter Terrorism Division was set up in January 2002, three months after 9/11. It now has a public budget of $203 million. It includes a variety of operations: a cyber-intelligence section, a group of native speakers in languages like Arabic and Urdu who monitor jihadi Web sites, called Operation Nexis; a transportation systems section that monitors bridges, tunnels, roads, pipelines, tank farms, ships, ports; an intelligence unit that produces CIA-quality reports on the overall threat. There are cops doing translations, Web monitoring, diving under ships in the harbor, flying over the city watching suspect vehicles, driving vans with radiological and biological “sniffer” devices, and talking to informants, both formal and informal.

All of it is coordinated at the deputy commissioner level by Richard Falkenrath, who runs counter-terror, and David Cohen, who runs the intelligence division. Falkenrath and Cohen are both highly qualified. Falkenrath holds a Ph.D. in international relations and served as deputy assistant to President Bush and deputy homeland security adviser.  Cohen was a CIA officer for 37 years, rising to the rank of acting director of operations, the man in charge of America’s spies. 

Every day at 9:30 a.m., they and Kelly meet in the commissioner’s executive command post at One Police Plaza and, says Cohen, they have to.

“In my view there’s no question that on any given day, there’s somebody out there who’s talking about the possibilities of an attack on New York — what a plot might looks like, what the elements might be,” says Cohen. “Every day, I wake up in the morning just assuming someone out there is having that conversation with someone else. Every day.”

New technology born from good old police work
To thwart that attack, Cohen shows off a lot of technology in the command post. Cohen can pretty much look anywhere in New York, using both the city’s own resources and private security cameras.

“[One] focuses on the stock exchange area for example,” says Cohen, pointing to a monitor showing several scenes in the financial district. “And the camera will move around. Over in the intelligence division, we keep a whole series of monitors just to spot-check subway stations.”

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And the technology is likely to get more specific and, some might say, more intrusive.  If a bag should be left at a location in a high-traffic area, Cohen says they are building a camera system that enables police to look closer. "When did that bag get there, and what did the guy who did it look like?”

Like a lot of what the NYPD does, that comes out of older police technology. The same is true of the scuba team, which now randomly dives under ships in New York Harbor to check for “parasite bombs,”  bombs surreptitiously attached to a ship’s hull at a previous port of call.

“The maritime aspect and team was a much-needed component,” says Detective Keith Duval of the Counter Terrorism Division’s maritime unit. “I came from the scuba team, where I spent time doing evidence searches,” which meant looking for guns, knives, bodies.

But some are brand-new to police work, more a component of intelligence work, like the speedboat mounted with mobile radiological detection devices or mobile sonar devices — to search pier lines. 

“We’ve ramped up security around the harbor. We’ve increased our presence around ferry terminals and critical infrastructure,” adds Lt. John Harkins, who works with Duval on the water. “We’re hardening the target and trying to make the citizens of New York safer, and everyone is working twice as hard after 9/11.”

And in the air, unmarked helicopters, flying out of the NYPD’s own air base at Floyd Bennett Field, a World War II Navy base that used to send out planes to search for Nazi submarines.  The choppers are equipped with gyro-mounted infrared cameras that can spot heat sources, including nuclear material, inside a ship’s hull or snap color images of individuals and, yes, even read license plate numbers from a thousand feet. 

Fran Townsend, President Bush’s homeland security adviser, calls the NYPD the “gold standard ... building a long-term intelligence capability, both analysis and collection; it’s incredibly effective." She does not worry about civil liberties’ being violated. “This is not domestic spying. This is very particularly focused on the terrorism threat. This is, 'What is the information?'”

Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, is worried. “I don’t like having essentially a police department that can video people, infiltrate people, leave them in prison, entrap them. I don’t think that’s making it safer — it’s making us less safe.”

A face in the Muslim community
Lt. Bobby Stapleton, who heads the Counter Terrorism Division’s Transportation Section, and has responsibility for the air and sea components, thinks “the next terrorist attack will probably be foiled by a rookie cop who got suspicious and asked the right questions.  It’s what we drill into them at the (police) academy.”

Detective Ahmed Nasser is not a rookie, but an eight-year veteran of the police department.  Born in Yemen, he is one 800 New York cops who speak a variety of languages critical to police work as well as counter-terrorism in a city where more than 3 million residents are foreign-born and as many as 700,000 are Muslims. His and the others’ language skills and proficiency levels are stored in a database available to the Counter Terrorism Division. Some of the officers have even been lent to the CIA and FBI.

Nasser regularly patrols streets in Islamic neighborhoods like Bay Ridge, which a lot of cops call “Beirut” because of its large Arab population. He is the face of the NYPD in a lot of those communities, visiting shops, talking to people, praying at storefront mosques, often in uniform.

“For the last four and a half years, I’ve been assigned to community affairs as the liaison for the Arab and Muslim community,” says Nasser. “And what that basically entails is that I’m almost a bridge between the police department and the community. The goal of community affairs is to work between the police and the community."

“If you’re working with the community, you’ve got more eyes that can help you, telling you who’s committed this crime, who’s committed that crime. I think the same philosophy goes for counter-terrorism.”

“We talk to a lot of people ... a lot of people,” adds Cohen with a smile.

Cooperation with other target cities
There’s another aspect to the department’s internationalization — the 10 overseas posts the NYPD has set up worldwide in places like London, Singapore, Tel Aviv, Mumbai and Madrid, all of which have had their own attacks.

Each time one of those cities experiences or thwarts an attack, the police detective assigned sends the information to New York for analysis as to how terrorists could take advantage of the same vulnerabilities that might be found in New York. Occasionally, the city will do a more detailed look, based on what they are seeing and hearing over the long term in terrorist trends. 

“In Madrid, we had people giving us real-time info that enables them to beef up security,” says Duval, who like all the cops know that attacks by al-Qaida are often multiple and near-simultaneous. An attack on the train station in Madrid could mean one is planned elsewhere, like New York.

'Blunt force'
Not everything the department does is subtle, either. Blunt force has its place, say the officials.

Every day, the department runs what it calls “surges.” Three times a day, it sends out dozens of marked police cars, sirens sounding, lights flashing. About 150 cops per surge gather, then fan out to places like the subway, descending on the platforms en masse. It is not, as many New Yorkers think, random. It is, say officials, based on the latest intelligence, a tip picked up from the counter-terrorism hotline, a report from an overseas bureau, intelligence from the CIA, routed through Homeland Security.

There are no guarantees, of course, but nothing is inevitable, either, says Kelly. Thinking an attack is bound to happen leads to shoulder-shrugging or, worse, letting your guard down.

“I think we will probably have attempts. I don't think it’s inevitable in this city,” he says. “I would never accept the notion of inevitability because we are doing so much to prevent it, but it is certainly possible.”

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

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