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05.05.10

Watching the Terrorists

The Times Square bomb scare is a fresh reminder that America needs to step up surveillance to stave off attacks. Former NYPD counterterrorism boss Michael A. Sheehan on why we need more cameras now.

When I was at the New York Police Department, Commissioner Ray Kelly sent me and my team to the city of London to see whether any of the measures they put in place to combat IRA terrorism were worth replicating back in New York. One of the key investments London made: putting in place a state-of-the-art camera system and license-plate reader that could serve as a deterrent for those planning an attack and as a critical reconnaissance tool for police in the aftermath of one.

Although technology is certainly not the panacea for preventing and responding to terrorism, it does provide law enforcement with the ability to maintain vigilance in areas of high traffic and to search for key clues almost instantly following any type of attack. Immediately after the failed Times Square bombing attempt, investigators were able to review the video for clues and identify possible suspects. Thankfully, the suspect proved grossly incompetent and was captured days later. But if he had succeeded, the only way to positively identify the make, model, and color of the car would have been through cameras.

Unfortunately, the examples of frivolous investments in security outweigh more practical programs that, if implemented, would truly provide us with an added capability to investigate, prosecute, and ideally, deter acts of terrorism.

The failed Times Square plot reminds us that New York City remains squarely in the crosshairs of international and domestic terrorists. It also reminds us that we live in an open society that presents numerous opportunities for any individual (be they a lone wolf, homegrown, or international extremist) to conduct deadly attacks on the homeland. Although the federal government has spent billions of dollars on protecting citizens and infrastructure from attack, most of these measures fail under closer inspection to produce any value-added in making us safer. Unfortunately, the examples of frivolous investments in security outweigh more practical programs that, if implemented, would truly provide us with an added capability to investigate, prosecute, and ideally, deter acts of terrorism.

Currently, the NYPD is implementing the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative (LMSI), which features a network of over 3,000 private and public cameras and 100 license-plate reading devices that are fed into an operations center manned by uniform police. But it is more than that. The LMSI provides a forum for NYPD and private-sector security personnel to share best practices, information, and get intelligence briefings to help them better prepare their security measures.

Cameras, license-plate readers, and briefings will not guarantee our security. Intelligence operations remain our most important line of defense to protect ourselves from terrorist threats. But it is prudent to invest some technological resources to bolster these operations in some of our more vulnerable areas. As we were reminded again this weekend, New York City and Times Square fall into that category. The Obama administration and the U.S. Congress should support these programs, and reallocate funding from other less important areas to places where they would really provide value.

Michael A. Sheehan is the former Deputy Commissioner of Counterterrorism in the New York Police Department and the Director of the Madison Policy Forum, a national security policy think tank.