Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Operation Atlas And The Security Of New York

In preparation for the most treacherous fighting of all, house-to-house combat in Iraqi cities, American soldiers have been training for weeks at Camp New York, a forlorn desert landscape in Kuwait's northwest corner. Here they built a bleak Hollywood set of streets, houses, and cut-outs of human targets in order to prepare for the coming urban battles in Baghdad and other cities, which are expected to produce high casualty rates.

Meanwhile, the real New York, touched though it may be by such official homage, is doing what it has always done: hoping for help from allies like the federal government, but taking care of itself in the grim recognition that little aid may be forthcoming. Earlier this month Police Commissioner Ray Kelly introduced his plan to beef up security in the event of a war in Iraq, which he called Operation Atlas. "Broadly speaking," he said at a March 18 press conference, "we are tightening the protective net around New York City." His boss, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, met with President George W. Bush the next morning to ask for $900 million in federal aid. Bush made no commitment; that very evening, the president launched the war in Iraq, and the mayor put Operation Atlas into full effect.

Kelly's plan is expected to cost New York $5 million a week, a painful sum for a city facing a nearly $4 billion annual deficit, generated in part by the terrorism that has incited the nation to war.


Within the last ten years New York has endured two terrorist attacks — and the city reportedly remains the American target mentioned most often in communications by terrorist groups intercepted by intelligence agencies around the world. According to the New York Times, terrorist intercepts specifically mentioned the economic disaster that would follow a major disruption of routes into New York.

Some terrorism experts, such as Rohan Gunaratna (Read "An Assessment Of The Threat From Al Qaeda in 2003"), believe that this might be just wishful thinking on the part of Al Qaeda at this point. U.S. military and intelligence activity abroad has caused Al Qaeda to suffer "severe disruption to its command and control"; increased security in the U.S. and in New York City make it easier for Al Qaeda to focus their efforts and (diminished) capabilities on Western targets elsewhere.

But Al Qaeda is by no means the only terrorist organization and, whatever beefing up in security that has taken place over the past 18 months, "no assurances have been given, nor would they be believed; Israel offers bloody proof that no degree of vigilance is a guarantee," in the words of an overview in last Sunday's New York Times of security measures in the city, entitled "In New York, A Security Blanket With Holes."

So in a way, the launching of the U.S. war against Iraq was simply as good a start date as any for implementing the New York Police Department's security plans, which have been evolving since September 11, 2001.

Militarily, New York is hard to defend. Its economic assets as a transportation hub — elaborate corridors by land, sea, and air — are strategic deficits. Its systems that have so successfully delivered goods and services for decades now must be secured to block deliveries rather than permit them. Since this can not really be done without destroying New York economically, the police department's Operation Atlas is pouring thousands of heavily armed, uniformed police officers onto the streets to investigate, intimidate and deter terrorist or retaliatory activity.

Some sites, such as the bridges and tunnels into the city, and some institutions, such as hotels, theaters, embassies, media headquarters, mosques and synagogues, get extra protection, some with uniformed presence and others with drive-by surveillance. Emergency Service Unit cops armed with submachine guns and backed by armored vehicles have been assigned to what Commissioner Kelly calls "signature locations." Wall Street, for example, has been given highly visible 24-hour coverage. The financial industry remains uneasy, however, and, as the Times reports, major banks and exchanges have developed backup sites and alternative trading floors.

Hazardous material units and disaster response teams (first developed for the 2000 millennium) have been deployed throughout Manhattan. The police department has distributed gas masks, first-aid kits, and rubber gloves to about 15,000 police officers, to help protect them if either a chemical or biological attack occurs. (Masks and kits were paid for by a $4 million federal grant.) And bomb-sniffing dogs have been accompanying their human partners on subway trains and the Staten Island ferry, as well as on walks through Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station.

Governor George Pataki has added extra protection to the city's reservoir system, located upstate, and asked the federal government for additional patrols of the Indian River nuclear plant in Westchester.


Almost all of New York's goods come in by truck. Only about four percent come by train. But bombs can also be delivered cheaply and efficiently in trucks; witness the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. The police department feels they have little choice but to set up movable checkpoints at the bridges, tunnels, and crucial arteries, most recently across 96th Street on all southbound avenues. These checkpoints can, of course, be disastrously expensive for businesses. All of the river crossings had huge delays last week as cops asked drivers for license and registration, and used small handheld devices to scan cargo and trunks for dangerous materials.

The city is also preparing for ship-based bombs in its waterways. Armed Coast Guard cutters and New York Police Department harbor ships are patrolling the harbor and escorting ferries. The Coast Guard is said to be scanning ships with Geiger counters to detect radiological material. Even though New York has had no known ship-based terrorist attack, the terrorist bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in October 2000 offers a sobering precedent. An expert on Al Qaeda, Rohan Gunaratna (a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Scotland's University of St. Andrews) recently debriefed New York Police Department officials, showing them photographs of boats that Al Qaeda had designed for suicide attacks against ships, according to the New York Times.

In a policy memo summarizing his presentation to the police, Gunaratna says that the beefed-up protection of land and aviation targets will shift the threat to sea targets, particularly to commercial maritime targets.

The U.S. Customs Service, which basically agrees, has changed its top priority in New York's seaport from slowing the flow of illegal drugs to stopping potential terrorist weapons. It reportedly has invested millions of dollars in new technological devices to detect components of a nuclear weapon or a radiological dirty bomb that could be hidden in one of the huge shipping containers coming into the port.


(Not) Patrolling The Skies

Because of federal "preemption," no one patrols the lower airspace above New York during normal times. The New York Police Department patrols the streets, but the Federal Aviation Administration controls the skies. The police can inspect trucks for bombs as they come through the tunnels, but they cannot stop an armed helicopter from flying overhead. This has long been a contentious issue in the city. A year before the World Trade Center attack, United Nations officials complained that helicopters flying below the roofline of their East Side headquarters were a security threat. They were worried about a gunship attack — not unreasonably, given reports of specific terrorist plans to attack the U.N. The Federal Aviation Administration replied that the skies were free and nothing could or would be done.

The FAA, which sees its role as promoting the aviation industry, argues that flying freely anywhere in the country is a basic American right. It believes that all small aircraft should be able to fly low, with no restrictions, over major cities and national monuments. When crises occur — like war — the FAA makes general pronouncements about "restricted air space" that get duly reprinted in newspapers. But "restricted air space" may, like so many security measures, grossly inconvenience businesses and passengers without making the city much safer.

The way the system usually works is that planes flying above 2,500 feet are under the control of the LaGuardia or Newark air control towers, but planes below that level fly under visual flight rules. Thus pilots flying small planes or helicopters need not ask permission to enter New York's airspace, or identify themselves to FAA regional or local controllers.

In normal times, anyone can fly under visual flight rules below 1,100 feet over the Hudson River or over the East River south of the 59th Street bridge, without even communicating with the FAA. Planes flying above 1,100 feet, or flying at any altitude across midtown and northern Manhattan, must check in with the La Guardia tower, give their tail number, and receive a heading intended to prevent congestion. No security check is involved. The FAA does not know who is piloting these planes, apart from their tail ID number. Nor does the FAA have any enforcement power. Fighter jets patrolling New York's skies are the major enforcers — although it is not at all clear what behavior would trigger fighter jet intervention.

Anyone with a license can rent a plane at many of the approximately 2,000 general aviation airfields within a short flight of New York. Licenses are issued by civilians on the basis of a pilot's proficiency and training. Easily forged and without photos, pilot licenses are seldom verified at general aviation airports, which in any event have notoriously lax security.

Planes can legitimately be flown into New York airports — to refuel, for example — from anywhere in the country. Planes are not inspected on arrival or before departure. Helicopters, which constitute a huge portion of local, low-level air traffic, do not even need an airport for departure.

What is the solution? Aviation security is a law enforcement function. Common sense dictates that it belongs with a law enforcement agency, not the FAA, which is a business promotion agency. A solution to New York's vulnerability from the air is for the Office of Homeland Security to delegate authority over the lower air space to the New York Police Department, which has an aviation unit and a fleet of helicopters — and which could be as capable in the air as it is on the ground. Even without real authority, NYPD helicopters have been known to escort small planes from the vicinity of Ground Zero and the Statue of Liberty, and to chase pilots flying too close to bridges.

The assumption behind much of Operation Atlas is that individual attackers or small groups present greater terrorist risks than larger, carefully planned assaults. Bruce Hoffman, vice president of the RAND Corporation, thinks that though this scenario was the common wisdom up until September 11th, it may now be wrong. Before then, says Hoffman, for reasons not well understood, terrorists had usually not undertaken coordinated operations, with some exceptions, such as the Irish Republican Army's 1979 assassination of Mountbatten and near-simultaneous remote-control mine attack in Northern Ireland.

But too much attention has probably been focused, he says, on the extremes: the low-end threat posed by car and truck bombs against buildings and the more exotic high-end threats, entailing biological or chemical weapons or cyber-attacks. American planning scenarios through the 1990s assumed that attacks would involve germ or chemical agents or result from widespread electronic attacks on critical infrastructure. Here is the crucial weakness: it was thought that any conventional or less extensive incident could be addressed simply by planning for the most catastrophic threat. This, argues Hoffman, left a painfully vulnerable gap in American anti-terrorism defenses while a traditional and long-proven tactic, airline hijacking, was neglected in favor of other, less conventional threats.

Thus it was not, for example, the 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway that should have been the dominant influence on counter-terrorist thinking, but the 1994 hijacking in Algiers of an Air France passenger plane by terrorists intending to crash the fuel-laden plane with its passengers into the Eiffel Tower.

Is New York still jeopardized by Hoffman's "painfully vulnerable gap" in the skies? Certainly New York still suffers from the New York Police Department's lack of authority to patrol its skies, which remain under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration. (see blue box)

On March 18, the Federal Aviation Administration put into effect some new rules, imposing an ADIZ (air defense identification zone) in overlapping 34 mile-rings around New York's three airports.

Pilots flying up to 18,000 feet must file a flight plan stating destination, amount of fuel they are carrying, and number of passengers — even if they are flying under visual flight rules. All pilots must also stay in communication with air traffic controllers, and must notify the FAA when they leave the zone or land. But these rules may do nothing more than complicate the lives of legitimate pilots. The Federal Aviation Administration admits it lacks the manpower to review advance plans quickly, while doing nothing to identify threats. After all, pilots can be anybody, including terrorists. They do not carry official identification.

Meanwhile, even as small planes continued to fly freely over New York, the FAA issued rules preventing aircraft from flying below 3,000 feet within three miles of Disneyland in California and Disney World in Florida, calling them "potential targets of great symbolic value."


Small planes are obvious potential carriers of biological weaponry. A private plane or helicopter could carry a light but high-impact payload aimed at people rather than buildings. Slow-moving, low-flying small aircraft - planes, helicopters, sky-writers, or crop dusters - are excellent vehicles for delivering either a radiation bomb or biological agents.

So why hasn't this happened outside of a Hitchcock movie?

One reason is that biological agents are so difficult to control-equally liable to hurt the perpetrator as the intended victims. And while terrorist groups have successfully recruited young people as suicide bombers, bombing is a simpler form of violence and its effects more precisely targeted. Nonetheless, prominent terrorist experts have been predicting since the late 1970s that such an attack would occur in a Western capital city such as New York. On the day after Mayor Bloomberg met with President Bush, federal Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced that his agency would give New York City $33 million to fight bio-terrorism, up from $26 million last year. Meanwhile, the crucial federal defense funding formula administered by Homeland Security remains on a per capita basis, which means that a huge state like Texas, never a terrorist target, will get more than New York. Mayor Bloomberg remains hopeful that this will be corrected.


Some experts worried about bio-terrorism also support the Bush administration's decision to detain asylum seekers from Iraq and 33 other countries where terrorist groups operate. This directive, which has been severely criticized by civil libertarians and immigration lawyers, represents a second wave of policy changes, the first being the severe tightening of asylum laws enacted by Congress after an asylum-seeker tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993. The administration calls the detention simply one of a number of counter-terrorism measures, and says it should affect fewer than 600 immigrants annually, most of them Iraqi.

The problems are enormous. Certainly Americans want to welcome those genuinely seeking asylum from Iraq. But only some 20 percent of asylum-seekers arrive with papers, making identification difficult. "We want to make absolutely certain during this period of time you are who you say you are," says Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge.

Dozens of Iraqis and suspected Iraqi sympathizers are being detained in New York and four other U.S. cities, according to the New York Post.

Government officials say Iraqi sympathizers may be plotting terror attacks on America from within American cities, again particularly New York. Federal agents are seeking three Iraqi agents they say have gone into hiding — two former guards at the Iraqi U.N. mission on the East Side of Manhattan and the New York correspondent of the Iraqi news agency. All were ordered to leave the country. Instead, they disappeared.


RAND analyst Brian Jenkins notes that experts on terrorism have long predicted some scenarios that have not happened. There has been no significant increase in terrorist attacks on energy systems, for example. Jenkins is not sure why this would be, though one harsh conclusion is that terrorists "prefer to advertise or kill." Pure sabotage is less appealing to them, goes this argument, the city's reservoirs and power plants less effective targets from the terrorists' point of view because few deaths would occur.

On the other hand, because law enforcement and security efforts have worked, says Jenkins, some traditional terrorist tactics, such as hijackings and embassy takeovers, occur far less frequently today. This law enforcement success may, ironically, encourage terrorists to attack targets that had not previously appealed to them. Terrorists always have the advantage, says Jenkins: They can attack anything, anywhere, at any time.

In this terrible scenario, the huge New York Police Department presence makes sense.

Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: New York Voters Approve $4.2 Billion Environmental Bond Act
New York Voters Approve $4.2 Billion Environmental Bond Act
Gotham Gazette: 
New York City Voters Approve Racial Justice Ballot Measures
New York City Voters Approve Racial Justice Ballot Measures
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast: A Winning Formula for Democrats in Tough New York Races
Max Politics Podcast: A Winning Formula for Democrats in Tough New York Races
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast Max Politics Podcast