Thursday, May 5, 2011



In a nondescript building in the meat packing district of Lower Manhattan

an elite team functions as NYC’s own CIA

(Thursday, May 5, 2011. Westside, Lower Manhattan, NYC) Just a short walk from what has been referred to as “Ground Zero” after the al-Qeada attacks on America at the World Trade Center in September 2001, is another “Ground Zero” that is the polar opposite of the Site just a few blocks away.

In the most nondescript of buildings in a neighborhood of remarkably nondescript structures, an elite force of under 50 NYPD Officers work in a hi-tech, dimly lit space tracking via high tech wizardry and high level intellect, potential threats to this City. The NYPD Intelligence Unit is among the most closely guarded, uniquely tasked and analytically capable of any Intelligence Unit on the planet. The men and women who staff this ultra-secret Unit are not assigned here by accident. They have all been “hand-picked” by the Deputy Police Commissioner for Intelligence and Counter-terrorism, David Cohen. And make no mistake about it, Mr. Cohen knows, intimately, the machinations and labyrinthine underworld of terrorism and intelligence gathering, analyzing and dissemination.

David Cohen was a CIA Officer for over thirty years. His career spanned some of the most tumultuous times and global events of the latter decades of the last century. He was an analyst who always seemed to “fall upwards” in his career, rising to a top level position in the Directorate of Operations at a relatively young age.

After the abysmal failures of the entire federal and military intelligence apparatus that came to light in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Cohen came to New York City and offered his services. He would go on to create one of the mot sophisticated, effective, efficient and capable “intelligence units” in the world. No other City on the planet can boast of a comparable entity. Cohen realized all too well that New York City would remain the primary “target rich environment” that would attract terrorists of every stripe and inclination.

While this Unit has been functioning in its current iteration since 2003, the death of Osama Bin Laden at the hands of Navy SEAL Team Six in his heavily fortified private compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan last Sunday, has people asking if there is a greater threat to New York City as groups or individuals may seek “retaliatory strikes”. The simple answer, according to one Intel Unit Officer is “Yes. Obviously the threat has been constant since 9-11 but with Bin Laden's death, we have ramped up some of our activities here and obviously, out in the field”.

The business of intelligence is as much science as it is art. This is true of any endeavor that must account for the unaccountable, for an amount of variables and a level of complexity that eludes quantification. The men and women of the NYPD Intelligence Unit must try to extract from a veritable ocean of “raw data” those few drops that constitute real “actionable intelligence”. This is a daunting and often frustrating task. However, the payoffs, when they are correct, can yield enormously significant results. The killing of Osama Bin Laden is a case in point. Years of intelligence data was collected, sifted through, analyzed, interpreted, vetted and put under intense scrutiny while even more information was sought to corroborate what the raw intelligence was beginning to reveal to the CIA and Pentagon.

That very same process is employed here in the NYPD Intel Unit but on a much smaller scale. Certainly, this Unit does not operate in isolation from other intelligence agencies around the world but their primary focus is to identify that one in a million ‘imminent threat’ to the City and residents of New York. Everything from information available in the media and in the public domain, to a very select and fine balance of information sharing with very specific, trusted sources is studied, looking for what? For signs, either covert or intuited, either from within the Five Boroughs or, perhaps from Scotland Yard, Interpol or some other valued, proven to be reliable source, that stands up under the scrutiny it must to be deemed “actionable”.

“We read everything from the local papers, foreign papers and magazines to intelligence reports from our own people stationed overseas as well as those working the streets here in New York”, commented one Intel Unit member who, due to the nature of what he and his colleagues do, cannot be publicly identified. “Actually”, continued the same Officer, “my own wife does not fully know what I do. She is aware that I am involved in something ‘different’, something sorta ‘top secret’ but, that’s about it.”

To enter the loft-like work space of this secretive Unit one is struck by the number of members who just “don’t look like cops”. One senior NYPD Officer who has been assigned to the Intel Unit for the last 6 years continues that, “some of these people were recruited right out of college and I mean the best colleges. They are classic computer nerds. They may have gone to Columbia, MIT, or some Ivy League university and majored in computer science or information technology or some related field. They went to the Police Academy so they could officially become active members of the NYPD but, they have spent their entire careers till now hacking, I mean the ‘good kind’, the ‘white hats’ type hacking and are truly talented and particularly well suited for what we do”.

Other members have long tenure in the NYPD; some started their careers in a radio cars in the Boroughs, on the streets and worked their ways up to higher rank, some had made Detective in their former Commands. It can be an odd mix but, given the mission they have been tasked with, they appear to work cohesively. The sense of “mission” is palpable among them. “I know what I am doing may help save lives of New Yorkers, maybe members of my own family or friends. I was on duty on 9-11-01 and responded. Since then I have been, in a way, obsessed. I have felt it necessary to try to understand our adversaries, the ‘nature of the threats’”, commented one female analyst who began her NYPD career in a rough Precinct sector in the Brooklyn South Patrol Command. She added with a wry smile, “everyday I walk in here I know I’m not in Brooklyn anymore”. Besides her experience on the dark and dirty streets of Brooklyn South, her degree from a prestigious university, her mutli-lingualness and her passion for “The Job”, attracted the attention of David Cohen. With little fanfare or paperwork she was suddenly reassigned. “One day I’m working cases in Brooklyn, two days later I’m here and beginning my ‘immersion training’. It was like, ‘Whoa. I knew we (NYPD) were on top of things but I never realized to what extent our Intel and Counter-terrorism Units functioned”.

Although this tightly knit Unit may have been the “brainchild” of David Cohen, it was NYPD Commissioner, Ray Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg who recognized the value of creating such a Unit and saw that the “return on the investment” would, potentially, be enormous. As Commissioner Kelly himself commented in an interview not that long ago, “We are doing all these things because New York is still the No. 1 target. We have been targeted four times, twice successfully, and the city remains the most symbolic, substantive target for the terrorists. These are cunning, patient, deliberate people who want to kill us and kill us in big numbers."

Lydia Khalil, former counter terrorism analyst with the NYPD Intelligence and Counter Terrorism Units, knows all too well how "cunning, patient and deliberate" the people are who truly seek to do us harm. Currently a Fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, Khalil has spoken publicly regarding the Intel Unit’s efficacy since she resigned from her position with NYPD to pursue other opportunities. She is an internationally recognized expert on the Middle East and, in particular, on the conditions in Middle Eastern countries that foment hatred of the West among the largely disenfranchised youths. While with The NYPD Ms. Khalil focused on international terrorism trends and terrorism cases in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

According to Khalil, we , as a Nation and as a City, must strive to understand the true nature of our enemies. Khalil has also been an outspoken proponent for the American Muslim / Islamic communities. She has written that some of the most “valuable, actionable intelligence” NYPD has obtained over the last 9 plus years has come from within the New York City Metropolitan Area Muslim community.

“This is an important thing to remember. The Muslims that live among us here in New York City, who pray at Mosques in all five Boroughs, have a vested interest in providing us with information. Some good, kind hearted Imam out in Queens sees a few members who show up regularly for prayer suddenly become hostile and isolated. He senses something not right. He calls us. The people of New York City are among the most understanding and accepting of each other because we really don’t have a choice. But, the Muslim community has felt a particular brand of hostility, even hatred, since September 11, 2001 and they want to help us more than anyone. After all, it is their very religion, their faith, that is called to question, that has raised suspicions. I give them all the credit in the world for stepping up as they have”, explained an Intel Unit Officer who identified himself as Jack.

If an average New Yorker could walk in off the street and spend some time in this place, they would, no doubt , leave here feeling that much better about their City, that much better about their NYPD and about their security.

The Feds created the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of fear and embarrassment. It has been a colossal failure, at least as seen by NYPD. Our entire federal intelligence apparatus was a colossal failure and dropped the ball regarding September 11, 2001. That is precisely why NYPD is doing what they are. " We won’t be fooled again".

As Jack told us, as he concluded our conversation, “Our Town, Our People, Our Business. We’ll take care of our own. I promise you that”.

Tags: NYPD Intelligence Unit, NYPD Counter terrorism Unit, Deputy Commissioner Cohen, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, Lydia Khalil, Securing NYC, Target Rich Environment, Homeland Security.


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