With the government’s official “threat level” up a notch and the war in Iraq under way, New Yorkers know they are potential targets of international terrorists. Transportation facilities such as the region’s airports, the city’s subway system, Grand Central Terminal, seaports and ferry boats rank high on the list of potential targets.
How unnerved should New Yorkers feel about the threat as they move about the city? How comforted should they feel from the extensive measures the authorities are taking?
Answering these questions is very difficult. Since terrorists value surprise, they often strike at times and places that people do not expect. In addition, police and security officials are understandably secretive about their diagnosis of the risks and the steps they are taking.
Nevertheless, published news reports show that the New York Police Department’s strategy is focused on international terrorist threats such as that posed by al-Qaeda. This threat is characterized by very carefully planned attacks. Therefore, the department dispatches heavily armed police officers day and night throughout the city in unpredictable patterns. The department’s aim is to disrupt terrorists’ reconnaissance and planning efforts. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly explained the strategy on CBS’s 60 Minutes, saying, “We know that any change in the security pattern can be disruptive of their plans. So if you change the pattern of normal security or normal enforcement, we believe that can be disconcerting and disruptive.” For the same reason, checkpoints are established without warning at bridges, tunnels and highway exits, where vehicles are tested for radioactive material.
These steps illustrate the deterrence part of Kelly’s strategy. Equally important are monitoring and reporting. The NYPD has set up posts in Tel Aviv, London and Lyons, France, to monitor overseas threats. A command post in the city monitors foreign television reports. Within the city, the police department monitors video images from 100 cameras at landmarks, bridges, tunnels and the subway system.
The public is also asked to be involved. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is running an advertising campaign with the headline, “If you see something, say something.” As the New York Times reported, focus groups shown the ad felt that they would know what “something” is if they saw it. People are taking the cue. The police department is now getting 100 to 150 tips about suspicious activity a day, up from 30 to 40 calls per day before the war began.
Internally to the transit system, New York City Transit has put 2,500 front-line employees like token clerks through a two-hour training session with a focus on “Identify, Notify and Evacuate,” reports the Queens Times-Ledger. (Newsday reports, however, that some subway workers objected to receiving an abbreviated 20 minute version that instructed workers to flee rather than help passengers in case of an attack.)
Another aspect to the strategy is presence. The police department’s anti terrorism task force has over 1,000 police officers, many of whom patrol the subways, some with bomb-sniffing dogs. Seven hundred National Guard troops and New York State troopers have been deployed to transportation sites in New York State that include Grand Central Terminal and commuter trains. Ferry boats are carrying armed escorts to ward off suicide attacks. And as any air traveler knows, every bag is now run through a $1 million scanner or swabbed for explosive traces, or both, and some travelers are asked to take off their shoes when passing through security.
”Tightening the protective net around New York City,” Commissioner Kelly’s declared goal, is a costly enterprise, with the city’s Operation Atlas costing an already budget-strapped city government $5 million a week.
Sometimes it seems to pay off. The Williamsburg Bridge was closed from 8 a.m. until 10:20 a.m. on March 28 after three men were seen on top of the bridge. It turned out they had spent the night drinking and somehow decided that climbing the bridge cables would be a suitable capstone to the evening. Mayor Bloomberg said the situation showed the effectiveness of the city’s heightened alert for potential terrorists.
But authorities cannot be everywhere and security appears to lag in some areas. The New York Times reported that only two percent to three percent of the millions of truck-size shipping containers arriving in New York harbor each year are inspected -- "just a slight increase from before Sept. 11.”
The public seems both unnerved and reassured. In press interviews, randomly chosen members of the public express appreciation for the efforts to protect the city. But they also recognize the perceived threat. Interviewed at Grand Central Terminal by the Christian Science Monitor, John Pena commented, "I saw military guys with machine guns in the mezzanine. To some degree it makes me feel safe, but also, not safe at all."
In a USA Today poll, 78 percent of air travelers said they feel safer as a result of the efforts to tighten airport security. About the same percentage said they are growing accustomed to enhanced airport security and do not mind it.
They might not feel safe if they thought about shoulder-fired missiles. Shoulder-fired missiles can be launched from as far away as 30 miles and reach altitudes of up to 18,000 feet. Heat-seeking technology directs the missiles toward an aircraft. The weapons weigh 35 pounds and typically cost $25,000 to $80,000 each. American intelligence and law enforcement agencies say that al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups are thought to have an arsenal overseas of dozens of shoulder-fired missiles, some left over from the American-backed guerrilla effort in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The Washington Post reported that in May, a Russian-built SA-7 missile was fired at a U.S. military plane taking off from an air base in Saudi Arabia. It missed. In November, two similar missiles nearly hit an airliner full of Israeli tourists after it took off in Mombasa, Kenya. The Transportation Security Administration administrator said that the Kenya incident "was outside the confines of the normal 'combat zone' and underscores how this threat has grown and now must be taken very seriously, everywhere."
Another newspaper, the Sun-Sentinel of southern Florida, reported that federal inspections showed that several of the nation's largest airports would be vulnerable to attack by terrorists using shoulder-fired missiles. A spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which manages Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark Liberty International airports, said it was aware of the missile threat and was responding to it, but would not discuss any details of its security planning.
Threats like heat-seeking shoulder missiles illustrate how difficult it is for the city to protect its transportation networks. Yet they may also suggest a reason not to be unnerved all the time. International terrorists go after high visibility targets. They went back to the Trade Center after failing to topple it with a bomb in 1993. Most of us, standing on our neighborhood subway platform, are probably pretty safe, after all.
Bruce Schaller is Principal of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis to government, business and non-profit groups seeking to identify and meet customer needs in the transportation sector. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.