Wednesday, March 25, 2009


By Christopher Dickey

Simon & Schuster, $26, 322 pages


“What does it take to make a city safe in the 21st century?” That is the question Christopher Dickey both asks and answers in “Securing the City,” his fly-on-the-wall look at how, under police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and a crew of aggressive cops, the New York Police Department, which has 50,000 employees and an annual budget that approaches $4 billion, morphed itself into a nimble, proactive international counterterror organization that has, since Sept. 11, kept the Big Apple and its 8-plus million residents safe.

One of the main reasons for the NYPD’s success, according to Mr. Dickey, who is Newsweek magazine’s Paris bureau chief and its Middle East regional editor, is New York City’s diversity. The Naked City, as it was called on the old TV series about New York’s finest, is a melting pot. Over its history, it has absorbed generation upon generation of immigrants.

Consequently, today’s NYPD has more fluent Arabic speakers than the FBI nationwide or than the State Department has on the ground at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Its Chinese speakers can converse in Fukienese as well as Mandarin; the NYPD’s Spanish linguists talk with Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Honduran, Puerto Rican or Dominican accents. NYPD officers speak Russian, French, German, Farsi, Dari and Pashto, too.

Language is hugely important if you want to elicit intelligence, and the NYPD is probably more language-capable these days than the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency or any of the other three-letter federal spook agencies. The NYPD’s polyglotism also helps “the 15 women and men … assigned to the cyber-intel unit … chatters, stalkers, predators presenting themselves in countless digital disguises.” New York’s cops are successful at infiltrating terrorist Web sites and chat rooms because the folks doing the infiltrating are native speakers who won’t be identified as infidels.

Another factor is the NYPD’s ability to psy-op the bad guys. Commissioner Kelly’s people run counterterrorist deployments known as Critical Response Vehicle surges that are “so common in Manhattan that they seem a normal part of daily life.” Scores of cops and dozens of vehicles suddenly converge - one week near Macy’s on Herald Square. The next outside Madison Square Garden. The next at the Midtown Tunnel.

The NYPD also stages Hercules Team surges, in which NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit (its SWAT team) shows up unannounced at such high-profile targets as the Empire State Building, while “Plainclothes officers from the Intelligence Division watch the crowd to see if the E-men in full battle gear provoke any unusual behavior.”

The reason for this theatricality is that “cops,” Mr. Dickey writes, “have to make themselves seem all-powerful and all-knowing. They have to infiltrate organizations and groups. They have to publicize their undercover operations sometimes to spread mistrust among potential conspirators.”

So a primary motive behind these surges and what Commissioner Kelly calls “the circus” is to keep the bad guys guessing. Another is “to keep the rank-and-file cops alert and informed and educate them about what’s going on in the rest of the world that might play out on Manhattan’s streets.”

The NYPD also involves business in counterterror. A program called Operation Nexus, begun in 2002, networked the cops “with businesses that might be exploited by terrorists. Companies that sold chemicals like hydrogen peroxide or nitrate fertilizers, the stuff of homemade bombs, needed to have their consciousness raised. But so did self-storage warehouses (where components and chemicals might be hidden), exterminators (poisons and sprayers), propane gas vendors (the canisters can serve as ready-made explosives), cell phone vendors (mobiles work as timers and triggers). … Some 80 different categories of businesses were deemed of interest to the police.”

Then there’s good old-fashioned policing. Since the mid-1990s, the NYPD has been run on what Mr. Dickey describes as four fundamental principles of policing that a Runyonesque former transit-cop lieutenant named Jack Maple one night sketched out on a napkin at Elaine’s, the Upper East Side watering hole for the demi-famous and self-important.

Those principles are:

(1) Accurate, timely intelligence.

(2) Rapid deployment.

(3) Effective tactics.

(4) Relentless follow-up and assessment.

Commissioner Kelly, to his credit, took Mr. Maple’s principles and applied them to counterterrorism. To make sure the NYPD had its “accurate, timely intelligence,” Commissioner Kelly recruited David Cohen, a former CIA economic analyst who, under Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch, had for a short time run CIA’s clandestine service - the Directorate of Operations. It is almost universally recognized that as America’s top spy, Mr. Cohen was a disaster. As NYPD’s intelligence boss, he has been a success.

Mr. Cohen has, for example, sent New York cops overseas to liaise with their brethren in blue in London, Paris and Tel Aviv, among other locations. And while the FBI’s Legatts - that’s diplomatic speak for legal attaches - are sequestered at U.S. embassies, Mr. Cohen’s cops are in the squad rooms. Guess who gets the better intelligence.

Some of the NYPD’s aggressive policies have aroused the ire of the FBI. “They do stuff that would get us arrested,” says a G-man. “The Constitution applies to everyone.” And the New York Civil Liberties Union went after the NYPD for its mass arrests during the 2004 Republican National Convention.

But, Mr. Dickey writes, “Kelley and his people were, and remain, unrepentant.” With reason: There has been no attack in New York since Sept. 11. New York’s Thin Blue Line, Mr. Dickey shows us in this informative and well-documented book, is holding firm.

John Weisman’s novels “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” are available as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at

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