Terrorist Threats to New York City -- and DHS Funding

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Accurate and timely information sharing and cooperation are key -- but so are federal dollars.

The recently-revealed “plot” against the Holland Tunnel -- uncovered months ago but rightly kept under wraps until recently -- adds weight to the argument that New York City deserves far more anti-terror funding from Congress, according to David Gaier, a journalist who writes widely on security and terrorism.

“The problem is not merely the large number of inviting terrorist targets in New York City, cited -- absurdly -- as ‘zero’ by DHS,” says Gaier. “And it’s not just money that’s needed here; it’s cooperation and communication. Though the large number of NYC targets is unfathomable even to security and law enforcement experts, the real issue is that the City cannot be reasonably protected unless threats are accurately identified and communicated in advance -- and the federal government has shown itself to be spotty at that.” Gaier says, too, that threat assessment must be clearly distinguished from vulnerability and risk assessment, which are important but far different, and more easily determined. “To be fair to the feds, threat assessment is terribly difficult, and even reliable sources will generate false alarms. That risks ‘alert fatigue,’ when people simply ignore the alarms. Washington has shown recently that it can do a better job at threat assessment, and share what they know with less of their usual subterfuge and hedging. But that also requires more inside sources of information, especially human sources, at a time when our national intelligence apparatus seems to be in constant turmoil.”

Other factors complicate the situation, he says:

First, the NY/NJ/CT area is the most densely-populated region in the United States. As a result, any well-executed mass-destruction device or attack would likely cause many more casualties than at any other locale. Moreover, a successful attack is also likely to wreak havoc on the very infrastructure that is required for rescue and recovery. For example, Gaier says, “Nowhere else is mass transit so highly concentrated and vital, or an attack so potentially catastrophic,” he says, yet notes that most federal dollars for transportation security still go to TSA -- “to check your boarding pass four times.”

Second, the prospect of targeting the New York City area offers an especially enticing emotional “high” for terrorists and sociopaths, he says. “The few square miles of Manhattan encompass the centers of global finance, entertainment, journalism and commerce, and are indisputably the most appealing targets on a number of levels.”

Third, the multi-layered complexity of law enforcement, public safety and public administration authorities in the nation’s most populous city and region also generates conflicts in anti-terrorism planning, target hardening, and emergency response and recovery. These include turf battles, egos, and jurisdictional issues that have been debated and even fought, but never quite settled. “Add to this the inherent tension between federal and state/local government that is especially pernicious when it concerns security and terrorism, and you have a standing mess to sort out, he adds. “Yet the unprecedented cooperation shown during the 2004 Republican National Convention shows it can be done on a smaller, more focused scale over a very limited time.

The challenge is to make a permanent change in how federal, state and local government agencies and their leaders do business and communicate on security matters. Here, there are real strides to be taken,” says Gaier. “It may comfort some New Yorkers when Chuck Schumer rails at Michael Chertoff, but it doesn’t solve the problem.”

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David Gaier

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