The foiled homegrown plot by four ex-convicts to bomb synagogues and shoot down military aircraft in Newburgh in May was a startling reminder that despite almost eight years of calm, New York remains extremist Islam’s most alluring target.
A few weeks before the police-infiltrated plot was sabotaged, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly told a Council on Foreign Relations seminar that the NYPD, which he has transformed into one of the world’s most effective counterterrorism forces, had helped disrupt some seven terrorist plots involving New York since his arrival shortly after September 11, 2001. “But the threat posed by al-Qaida and other like-minded groups shows no signs of abating,” Kelly warned participants at the meeting in April. “So we have no choice. We cannot afford to let down our guard.”
During a fiscal crunch, of course, some might argue that we cannot afford to keep our guard up. But police officials say they don’t see it that way. Though some sources of financial support are drying up as a result of the crisis, police say they have no choice but to maintain the quality of their superb counterterrorist programs.
At the moment, NYPD officials say, the department employs more than 1,000 people in its counterterrorism division and spends about $173 million a year on counterterrorism. (Though both numbers are the highest of any American city, they still constitute a small fraction of the department’s 36,000 uniformed and 15,000 civilian employees and $4.6 billion annual budget.) But according to the budget that Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled in early May, the NYPD will lose about $225 million over the next two years, part of $1.5 billion in budget cuts that the mayor has made for all city agencies.
As a result, the NYPD plans to lay off some 395 civilians, nearly all of them clerical workers; not to hire a scheduled 125 traffic-enforcement agents (uniformed but unarmed civilians who direct traffic and issue parking tickets); and to hire no new cops in 2010, other than those funded by the Obama administration’s giant fiscal stimulus package. But despite the budgetary squeeze, says Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman, no uniformed patrolmen or counterterrorism analysts will be laid off, and all the counterterrorism program’s core projects are on track. None will be eliminated or even significantly reduced, Browne asserts.
For instance, the city has not cut back on Operation Nexus, the thousands of visits that officers make each year to firms that may unwittingly help terrorists by supplying goods and services for an attack. Similarly, the NYPD intends to continue Operation Sentry, its effort to share its expertise, as well as information about suspicious activities, with some 98 police agencies within a 150-mile radius of New York City. There are no cutbacks planned for the Shield program, which includes periodic briefings and training for hundreds of private security officials in New York who augment the NYPD’s terror-fighting effort.
And the NYPD is still expanding its largest new venture—the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, aimed at protecting New York’s vital Financial District, including the World Trade Center. Unveiled last year and modeled after London’s “Ring of Steel,” the surveillance system, based in a nondescript building on Broadway, monitors data from over 150 cameras and 30 license-plate readers. The department ultimately plans to install some 3,000 cameras, as many as 96 license-plate readers, and sensors to detect the use of a biological or radiological weapon. So far, the expansion has been unaffected, since $69 million of the $84 million that New York has spent on the system is federal money from the Department of Homeland Security.
In fact, much of the funding for the NYPD’s counterterrorism programs comes from the DHS and other federal agencies, meaning that changes in distribution formulas and total grant levels could significantly reduce police resources. But police officials seem confident that New York’s counterterrorism efforts will be spared the worst cuts. In fact, the NYPD expects some relief from the stimulus package, though how much remains uncertain. The House of Representatives is considering a revival of the Clinton administration’s COPS program, which might finance as many as 2,000 additional police officers for New York City, Browne says.
While Kelly may be able to insulate his counterterrorism mission from city, state, and federal budget cuts, the recession is nonetheless likely to affect his program. That’s because private foundations have financed some of his most innovative projects. The disappearance of so many Wall Street jobs—economists project that the city could lose some 328,000 jobs over the course of the recession—and declining income among wealthier New Yorkers will inevitably diminish the pool of potential future donors to these foundations and the pioneering efforts they finance.
In May 2008, for example, the NYPD became the nation’s only municipal police force to have its own terrorism guru when it hired Marc Sageman, a prominent terrorism expert, as its “scholar-in-residence.” Sageman didn’t come cheaply; to lure him to New York, the department agreed to subsidize his rent and pay the former CIA case officer, Navy flight surgeon, psychiatrist, and sociologist just over $180,000 for the year—almost as much as Commissioner Kelly earns. The money came from the NYPD Counter-terrorism Foundation, which was created in 2006 specifically to finance educational ventures aimed at preventing another terrorist attack.
But having a scholar-in-residence is a luxury that the NYPD can no longer afford, since the Counter-terrorism Foundation is no longer active. “A number of our donors were involved in Bernie Madoff investments,” says John D. Dadakis, the foundation’s president. “So we are unable to find the resources right now to rebuild. We will have to regroup and see what we can do.” For the time being, at least, the foundation won’t be able to make grants like the one it made to police and security officials from 15 countries in January 2008, allowing them to travel to New York for an NYPD-sponsored conference on de-radicalizing Islamic militants.
The Police Foundation, established in 1971 in the wake of the Knapp Commission and the corruption scandals that traumatized the department, is in better shape. Pamela Delaney, the 12-year NYPD veteran who heads the foundation, says that between $1.5 and $2 million of the roughly $9 million she raised last year went to counterterrorism initiatives. The foundation has spent nearly $4.5 million over seven years helping keep 11 NYPD detectives in cities overseas to collect and relay terrorism-related information directly to the department. During the London train and subway bombings in the summer of 2005, the NYPD’s liaison there immediately sent information from the scene and from Scotland Yard that was “instrumental” in redeploying NYPD personnel in the subways and streets, police say. The information that these liaisons provide is analyzed at the NYPD’s Counterterrorist Operations Center, which has also received $1.5 million in Police Foundation support, Delaney says. She adds that her group’s fund-raising has yet to be badly damaged and that it should raise about $6 million this year—impressive, given the economic climate.
Yet the NYPD’s phenomenal success in battling crime and terrorism may eventually spell trouble. Jerry Ratcliffe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University, says that police chiefs throughout the nation are under tremendous pressure to spend less on counterterrorism and more on battling gangs, drugs, and violent crime. Kelly may not feel such heat yet, given the city’s experience with catastrophic terrorism and its success in reducing crime, but pressure might increase, were crime rates to climb. Moreover, as distance from 9/11 grows and memories of that terrible event fade, even New Yorkers may begin to suffer from what Ratcliffe calls the “inertia of calm.”
So far, however, one sees few signs of such complacency. Yes, the department, like most government agencies, may be slashing expenses and reducing the frequency of some exercises. More aging cops and police cars may not be replaced, but the city’s political leadership seems determined to insulate the counterterrorism program from budget cuts and counterterrorism fatigue. “We may have to do more with less,” Kelly says. “But we will never compromise on the city’s security.”