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New York's extensive war on terrorism rivals national effort

NEW YORK—Scores of police officers pulled their squad cars to a stop just before dawn by the public library in Midtown Manhattan, parking on both sides of a converted mobile home, a command post on wheels.

Inside, surrounded by half a dozen police captains, Inspector Sal DiPace opened a packet stamped "sensitive" that laid out how 200 cops from all five New York boroughs would help protect America's largest city from terrorists on the day before Thanksgiving.

Welcome to the front line in the war on terrorism, a metropolis of 8 million people scarred forever by the huge pit where the World Trade Center once stood, a city whose leaders are making an all-out effort to ensure that Sept. 11 never happens again.

Their endeavor is massive. In the five years since the attacks, New York has transformed its anti-terrorist network, making the city the envy of all others.

"The NYPD has been doing very sophisticated, very creative things," said Brian Michael Jenkins, a counterterrorism expert at the RAND Corp., a research center. He labeled many of the city's initiatives as "best practices" adopted from law-enforcement agencies worldwide.

For New York, protection is job one.

DiPace told his team that in the theater district "it's matinee Wednesday, the craziest day of the year." The packet contained the latest intelligence from federal agencies as well as fresh guidance from the New York Police Department's own overseas officers, deployed to ensure speedy, accurate information on the latest terrorism tactics.

DiPace said there'd been "threats the last couple of days" to the Empire State Building, instructed police officers to step on and off subway trains and warned that the United Nations and the Lebanese consulate could be hot spots after the killing of Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel the day before.

In a couple of hours, Manhattan's sidewalks would be teeming with people, including throngs of high school dancers and musicians waiting to perform in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

In a couple of minutes, DiPace would send nearly 100 squad cars—lights flashing—from 42nd Street to scores of locations across the city, including the U.N., the 102-story Empire State Building and the Lebanese consulate. The "surge" is aimed at driving off terrorists who might be eyeing potential targets.

It was just one part of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's counterterrorism program, a multilayered effort that capitalizes on the eyes and ears of a 37,000-member force, more than 25 heavily armed harbor patrol boats, seven helicopters with zoom and infrared cameras, 275 interpreters, intelligence analysts and a $200 million budget.

Kelly "has a unique force" and "can do a lot with those numbers," said Michael Rolince, a former FBI international counterterrorism chief.

Criticism has rained on the NYPD since five cops sprayed 50 rounds at three unarmed men on Nov. 25, killing a 23-year-old on his wedding day. But the agency's counterterrorism program is acclaimed as a national model, despite its daunting task of shielding masses of people, Wall Street, six bridges, four tunnels, 600 subway miles and two major airports from bombs and chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attacks.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, New York police and federal agents have foiled an apparent 2003 al-Qaida plot to bomb the Brooklyn Bridge, a 2004 scheme to bomb the subway outside Macy's and an al-Qaida plot last summer to bomb the Holland Tunnel in the misplaced hope that Hudson River water gushing through the breach would submerge Manhattan's more elevated financial district. For unexplained reasons, al-Qaida No. 2 man Ayman al Zawahri reportedly called off a 2003 plot to release cyanide in the subways, Rolince said.

At a time of soaring federal counterterrorism budgets, "the NYPD is showing that we have tremendous resources ... that we're not even aware of," said Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University terrorism expert. "The officer on the beat ... may get wind of things before federal authorities."

Lured by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to a second tour as police commissioner in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Kelly listened to revelations that the CIA, the FBI and other federal agencies had bungled chances to uncover al-Qaida's suicide hijacking plot. Kelly, the only cop to rise from cadet to the top job and whose condo overlooks Ground Zero, soon declared that New York would defend itself.

It does so every day, by land, water, air and in myriad ways that the public can't see.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, about 17 NYPD detectives were assigned to counterterrorism. Now there are 1,000. Kelly, who oversaw the U.S. Customs Service and the Secret Service from 1996 to 1998, has recruited former CIA, White House and State Department officials to lead the effort.

The NYPD motto might be: Prepare for anything.

Officers in the Intelligence Division's "Shield" program inspect major corporate facilities and alert them to security weaknesses. Taking a page from Britain's Scotland Yard, police in the "Nexus" program implore sensitive businesses, such as those that sell guns or chemicals, to report suspicious activity.

So many cops across the city wear radiation pagers, counterterrorism Lt. David Kelly said, "that if somebody is out there building a dirty bomb ... we're pretty confident that we would come on it."

After 120 firefighters died on Sept. 11 because they never heard a police order to evacuate the World Trade Center, New York's police and fire communications systems now are linked, said spokesman Steve Jones of the Washington-based First Response Coalition.

About 140 cops are detailed to the FBI's New York Joint Terrorism Task Force. Another 140 are based at a Counter-Terrorism Bureau, situated in a nondescript building at a secret site outside Manhattan to provide redundancy if an attack disables One Police Plaza.

The bureau has a terrorism library so officers can learn how Islamic radicals and other militants think, a multimedia room that monitors broadcasts of the Arabic-language TV network Al-Jazeera and intelligence analysts with graduate degrees from elite colleges. It's trained nearly 12,000 cops how to respond to a biological, chemical or radiological attack in moon suits.

Parked outside the Counter-Terrorism Bureau are a ramshackle trailer and the same model 1989 Ford van that was used in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The van contains a mockup of the payload that convicted terrorist Ramzi Yousef described proudly to FBI agents: 2,500 pounds of fertilizer, three hydrogen tanks to enhance the charge and three detonation boosters. It reminds cops how much punch can be packed into a small vehicle, Police Detective Jimmy Halley said.

In the trailer is a virtual replica of the Leeds, England, apartment of last year's London subway suicide bombers. Strewn about are hot plates used to boil hydrogen peroxide and acetone to weapons grade, commercial cooling fans, hoods to protect the bombers and volatile powder everywhere. It teaches police not to mistake a bomb factory for a "sloppy drug lab," Lt. Kelly said.

In a city of immigrants, the NYPD has more interpreters than the FBI. They translate Middle Eastern languages and monitor radical Islamic chat rooms on the Internet. (When Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle's light plane hit a building on the Upper East Side, they watched as militants cheered the latest "attack," Lt. Kelly said).

Perhaps the most extraordinary move has occurred under Intelligence Division chief David Cohen, a former head of CIA clandestine services. In a move that the feds didn't welcome, he's posted officers in sites such as Britain, France, Israel and Singapore, to ask the New York question: how a terrorism incident might affect the Big Apple.

"Terrorists learn from other terrorists," Lt. Kelly said.

After three American hotels in Jordan were bombed a year ago, police scattered to New York hotels. When a Palestinian suicide bomber dressed like an Orthodox Jew, New York cops fanned out to costume shops.

After its overseas intelligence crew reported that the 2004 train bombers in Madrid, Spain, had parked vans near rail stations, the NYPD enlarged the perimeter around subways. Courts stopped police from randomly inspecting subway travelers' bags, so they now randomly conduct explosive trace-detection tests on the outside of bags, a step that Lt. Kelly called "the hallmark of our deployment."

"We want the bad guys to be off-balance," he said.

The twice-daily police "surges" of squad cars to as many as 100 sites are supplemented by operation "Hercules," in which officers armed with automatic weapons jump out of vans or squad cars and stand, along with a K-9 unit, outside commercial buildings, government centers and landmarks.

On Thanksgiving eve, cops with M4 assault rifles that can fire 5.56 mm rounds at a rate of 800 per minute stood outside New York Plaza, which houses the offices of the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs.

If passers-by inquire, Detective Brian Daly said, "we just tell them what we're doing is part of homeland security."

A police helicopter soared over Brooklyn's Brighton Beach and Coney Island on a recent evening before banking over the towering Verrazano-Narrows Bridge leading to Staten Island. Officers Dave Roman, the pilot, and Michael Sileo studied the bridge's suspension cables to check for tampering.

Roman arced around Staten Island, circled the Statue of Liberty and headed north over the Hudson River to monitor the giant Bayonne, N.J., oil-storage tanks, an aerial check made every four to eight hours. As dusk faded to darkness, Roman and Sileo scoured the city from the sky, floating past the Christmas lights decorating the Empire State and Chrysler buildings.

"We have a list of confidential locations that come up daily," Roman said over the radio. "There'll be specific times they want us there. ... A lot of it is just to let `em know we're constantly in the air, constantly looking."

Police watch from all angles. A squad car has been positioned at the Brooklyn Bridge since it was identified as an al-Qaida target. Police divers routinely ensure that no explosives have been latched to the stanchions that hold up the city's bridges.

Police Sgt. Tom Horvath and partner Joseph Lind watch much of the infrastructure from the water. As their patrol boat pulled away from Pier 11 and headed north along the East River, Horvath and Lind said they had imagined nearly every attack scenario, including the sinking of a Staten Island Ferry boat that carries up to 6,000 people in 38-degree water, giving rescuers no more than five minutes before the onset of hypothermia.

Horvath pointed to a round building on shore, the air vent for the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. Vents for the tunnels and subways are a way for terrorists to attack with chemicals or germs.

Horvath and Lind also worry about a USS Cole type of attack, a small, explosives-laden boat ramming a ferry, a ship or the United Nations. Horvath said the well-armed patrol boats were ready to intercept an attack boat if necessary.

Then he seemed to speak for the entire NYPD:

"There's no way we can say 100 percent, we'll stop an attack," Horvath said. "But we're doing everything we can to prevent and deter one."


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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