New York City

Protecting NYC 20 years after 9/11

A look at the controversial counterterrorism efforts that reshaped the NYPD and whether it was all worth it.

9/11 memorial in Queens.

9/11 memorial in Queens. Drop of Light/Shutterstock

Two decades have passed since New York City was ground zero in the deadliest terrorist plot in American history. In response to the attack, the United States launched a military invasion of Afghanistan, an ill-fated mission that came to a stunning close when the Taliban retook control of the country last month. The ability of New York to protect itself, however, has advanced well beyond where it was in 2001, even as the city’s scaled-up counterterrorism capabilities have received pushback.

The catastrophe of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks set in motion a major restructuring of the national security apparatus, including the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, the consolidation of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Customs Service into U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and the passage of the Patriot Act. At the same time, city task forces became a central component of the law enforcement response to terrorist threats – and nowhere was that response more determined than New York.New York City already had a counterterrorism program prior to 9/11. In 1980, the NYPD and FBI had developed the country’s first Joint Terrorism Task Force, which focused primarily on domestic terrorist activity. At the time of the World Trade Center attacks, however, the task force focused largely on security for diplomats and dignitaries. With the aftershock of the Sept. 11 attacks still reverberating throughout the city and country, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly began to ramp up the city’s ability to detect and prevent terrorist attacks in a manner unprecedented for a municipal police force. 

To work alongside the Joint Terrorism Task Force, Kelly created two new bureaus in the department: one for counterterrorism and one for intelligence. To lead the new bureaus he brought in David Cohen, the former deputy director of the CIA’s operations wing, and Michael Sheehan, who had been the coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department. Kelly recruited other high-level officials from the federal government, including the CIA, Homeland Security, the State Department, the Defense Intelligence Agency, FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration. He deployed police officers to eleven countries to act as listening posts for the city, expanded cooperation with law enforcement agencies throughout the region, and sought to diversify the force both linguistically and culturally.“It was a challenge, like a battleship – to turn it in another direction takes time and a lot of effort,” Kelly told City & State in 2016.

“New types of technology have the potential to create a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week surveillance state where the movement and identity of every single person are automatically tracked by the government.”
– state Sen. Brad Hoylman

Rapidly increasing the scale of the city’s counterterrorism activities required an enormous redistribution of resources. The ranks of the counterterrorism force eventually grew to more than a thousand people. Some cultural adjustments had to be made as intelligence analysts began closely collaborating with uniformed detectives. Hurdles in intelligence sharing between the NYPD and federal agencies also had to be overcome.

In 2008, the Counterterrorism Bureau launched the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, or LMSI, an extensive network of thousands of security cameras, license plate readers and radiological and chemical sensors that feed the data generated into a dashboard called the Domain Awareness System, allowing video feeds to be monitored from a single location in real time. The Lower Manhattan Security Initiative was later expanded to Midtown, followed by the outer boroughs.The counterterrorism program continued to grow throughout the second decade following the 9/11 attack, with its operational budget increasing by $93 million – or 8% – between fiscal years 2010 and 2020, according to the Citizens Budget Commission. Funding from Washington has contributed substantially to the expansion of the program. Since the Urban Area Security Initiative was signed into law in 2003, a quarter of the $2.3 billion allocated through it has gone to New York City. In FY 2021, the city budgeted almost $189 million on “Intelligence and Counterterrorism” in addition to nearly $109 million in  federal grants earmarked for “Security/Counterterrorism,” according to the Budget Function Analysis.When Bill Bratton returned for his second stint as NYPD chief in 2014, he placed both the counterterrorism and intelligence bureaus that his predecessor had created under a single deputy commissioner, John Miller, who continues in that post to this day. In his previous career as a CBS correspondent, Miller had interviewed Osama Bin Laden, and he later served as the FBI’s national spokesperson, and ran the counterterrorism bureau at the Los Angeles Police Department.

By 2014 the threat picture had changed: the primary concern had become ISIS, which was seeking to recruit and inspire homegrown jihadists through social media and other internet platforms. After the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, Bratton created two new units: the Critical Response Command and the Strategic Response Group. These units were designed to prevent and respond to unfolding terrorist attacks – particularly the sort of synchronized attacks that have occurred in Europe – more quickly and forcefully than ordinary police patrols.

“When it comes to prevention of events it is very hard both in the traditional crime space and in the intelligence sector to demonstrate what you have prevented, because you don’t always know.”
– Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City

Under Bratton and Miller, the Counterterrorism Bureau initiated a “collaborative reset,” including in the realm of community relations. As time passed and the shock of 9/11 wore off, the scope of the NYPD’s surveillance activities had come under greater scrutiny. In 2007, the department released a report entitled: “Radicalization in the West 2007: The Homegrown Threat,” which critics claimed advanced a rudimentary and alarmist view of the radicalization process. One of the most controversial initiatives was the creation of the Demographics Unit, which sent plainclothes officers or informants into businesses, student associations, charities and mosques to map out daily life in neighborhoods with large Muslim populations. Muslim leaders and civil liberties advocates also lambasted, when it came to light several years later, a program that conducted similarly broad surveillance of the city’s Moroccan community.

“They say the Demographics Unit has been officially shut down – hopefully it has – but let’s also put into perspective the fact that their level of surveillance on the Muslim community was something that they hid,” said Afaf Nasher, the executive director of the New York chapter of the Council on Islamic-American Relations.

Nasher added that new technologies have changed the way the department operates. “The NYPD is still doing surveillance – it’s just a matter of how they are doing surveillance,” she said.

Hannah Meyers, a former civilian intelligence analyst at the NYPD, told City & State that the department had to make “tweaks” in response to concerns from the Muslim community, but that analysts and detectives were required to undertake a significant amount of “legwork” when their investigations could infringe upon the civil liberties of an individual.

“The amount of approval that has to go through is very large, and has expanded over the years,” said Meyers, who is director of the policing and public safety initiative at the Manhattan Institute.

State Sen. Robert Jackson, who is Muslim, told City & State that in the wake of 9/11 the NYPD was aggressively pursuing investigations throughout the metropolitan area, and recalled the concerns of an imam who had been targeted. However, Jackson also pointed out that today there are more Muslims on the force, and in general concerns over surveillance are not as prominent as they once were. “I don't think it’s a problem at all at this point in time,” he said.

According to former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, building trust within communities is essential to success in combating terrorism as well as everyday crime, saying he made an effort to recruit Muslim officers. “The gathering of information from the community – whatever its makeup –  is extraordinarily important because no matter how good and efficient law enforcement – federal, state or local –  is, it relies significantly on information that is voluntarily delivered by the public,” Bratton told City & State.

“The threat level here in New York City is always one of the biggest, and we have to be on our p’s and q’s at all times, but I think that we are better prepared now than we were in 2001.”
– Rep. Gregory Meeks

Disagreements over how to balance public safety and privacy concerns continue to pit the NYPD against civil liberties advocates and elected officials. Last year, the City Council passed the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, which mandates greater transparency around the use of new surveillance technologies.“It’s hard to push back against what you don’t know, and that was the initial impetus behind the POST Act,” said Michael Sisitzky, senior policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union, who leads its police transparency and accountability campaign.  “So much of the NYPD surveillance infrastructure was only known to the public through litigation or leaks or investigative reporting or FOIL requests that went through multiple layers of litigation, so it was really challenging to get a sense of what the NYPD actually has in its arsenal.” 

Despite the passage of the POST Act, Sisitzky said that the “the department is still doing everything it can to limit the amount of information that they are making public.”

Sisitzky also expressed concern that the NYPD was deploying counterterrorism resources – such as drones and facial recognition technology – in policing everyday crime as well as Black Lives Matter protests.

Bratton, however, criticized elected officials for limiting the NYPD’s ability to take advantage of technological innovations, such as facial recognition tools, drones and even an electronic dog. “What the NYPD is up against is a very progressive, liberal City Council, many of whom were not even adults when 9/11 occurred, so when I talk about history – those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it – much of our leadership at the moment does not know the history of terrorism in the country and basically are putting unnecessary restrictions on the NYPD, particularly in the use of technology and capabilities to defeat potential terrorism threats,” he said.Last year, state Sen. Brad Hoylman, chair of the Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill that would prohibit law enforcement from using facial recognition and other biometric surveillance technology, such as retina scans and voice identification.“Our law enforcement community does admirable work to keep us safe, but new types of technology have the potential to create a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week surveillance state where the movement and identity of every single person are automatically tracked by the government,” Hoylman told City & State. “It sounds a little hyperbolic, but it’s not. China has a vast DNA database and an enormous network of surveillance cameras and it is capable of using this type of technology to monitor the movement of people within its borders.”

According to Hoylman, there is currently no regulatory framework to provide oversight of the new technology, which, he added, has been shown to have a high failure rate at identifying people of color and, in some cases, transgender people.Even those who have reservations about the privacy tradeoffs involved in expanding law enforcement’s surveillance capabilities appreciate the fact that there has been no major terrorist attack in New York since 2001. Experts say it is difficult, however, to assess the extent to which the counterterrorism activities have been responsible for protecting the city.

“When it comes to prevention of events it is very hard both in the traditional crime space and in the intelligence sector to demonstrate what you have prevented, because you don’t always know,” said Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City.

The NYPD has not publicized many instances in which it has disrupted terrorist plots over the years, but there are reasons that law enforcement agencies sometimes choose to withhold that kind of information, such as it would cause the public to panic or compromise a source. “There is a lot of intel that has been collected over the years, but in terms of actual tactical responses there were very few over the years, and we still don’t know if it’s a matter of luck or just something else,” said Maki Haberfeld, a professor of police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I think we’re better prepared than most of the cities around the country and world, but with terrorists you never know what you’re not prepared for.”

Bratton told City & State that the NYPD had thwarted 50 plots since 9/11, but the department did not respond to a request for specific data demonstrating the effectiveness of its counterterrorism program or any other questions submitted by City & State.

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 finds the country in an unsettled moment. In June, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a new strategy to combat domestic terrorism, following Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the Pentagon’s press secretary told reporters that “a reassessment of the possibilities for reconstitution of terrorist networks inside Afghanistan is warranted.” ISIS, meanwhile, continues to operate in rural areas of Syria and Iraq, as well as Afghanistan.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told City & State that it’s a “different world” today than it was 20 years ago. Meeks spoke of a visit he had made to One Police Plaza, recalling that it was “absolutely amazing to watch the entire operation.”

“The threat level here in New York City is always one of the biggest, and we have to be on our p’s and q’s at all times, but I think that we are better prepared now than we were in 2001,” Meeks said. “Our eyes and ears are more open and the technology that we utilize is even greater.”