Intelligence Gathering, New York-Style

Some cities are creating their own intelligence units to get the law enforcement information they want when they want it. Such independent activity isn't necessarily well received by the FBI and other federal agencies. A look at New York City's Intelligence Division, which was started after Sept. 11 and is housed in a secret location in the city.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

There's been a lot of talk about the flow of intelligence information between federal agencies and local police and breaking down the walls between them. In the largest cities, police are finding they may be able to do the intelligence work better themselves. NPR's Laura Sullivan went to see intelligence gathering New York style.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

New York City has the biggest police department in the country. With 50,000 employees, it's almost twice the size of the entire FBI, spread out over precincts in 76 city neighborhoods. And since 9/11, the department's had precincts in a few other neighborhoods as well.

Commissioner RAY KELLY (New York City Police): In Tel Aviv, in Lyon, France, which is where Interpol is located, in London, in Toronto, in Montreal, in Singapore and in the Dominican Republic.

SULLIVAN: As New York police commissioner, Ray Kelly is turning his department into a worldwide police force.

Commissioner KELLY: Our world got much smaller after 9/11. Obviously what happens overseas can very much impact on what happens here in New York City.

SULLIVAN: On a wall in the commissioner's office suite, there are maps of Afghanistan and Iraq, and a dozen clocks with local time in Paris, Tel Aviv, Baghdad and other places. For Kelly, taking policing outside New York City limits is the best way to prevent another attack, even if that means running up against the FBI. It's not that Kelly thinks the FBI isn't giving him information. It's just not the information Kelly wants or when he wants it.

Commissioner KELLY: We can't afford to wait months or sometimes years to get a report on what happened at a particular site. We value the information that we get from the FBI, from the CIA, but we also want our agents overseas to ask the New York questions: Is New York involved in any way?

SULLIVAN: To get an answer, Kelly created what he calls the intelligence division, a sweeping department of 500 officers, linguists and analysts housed in a secret location in the city. Here in what was once a warehouse, unsuspecting citizens shop and eat lunch, totally unaware of what's taking place above them.

Mr. DAVE COHEN (Intelligence Division): Well, the whole point was to sort of stay below the radar scope.

SULLIVAN: Dave Cohen was the CIA's director of operations under President Clinton. Commissioner Kelly lured him to New York to run the new division. Cohen walks to a far corner and stops in front of a nondescript elevator without a button.

(Soundbite of beep)

SULLIVAN: A key card summons the elevator, which a few seconds later opens onto a barren white hallway with a single door on the other side. Through this plain white metal door is the intelligence division, an enormous expanse of a room with hundreds of cubicles and no walls.

(Soundbite of door closing)

Mr. COHEN: This is our major operational headquarters, so to speak. We have, you know, a large number of personnel that are following up on leads that are called in from all over the city.

SULLIVAN: Everyone here is in street clothes. International investigators, undercover agents, teams of linguists translate Farsi, Arabic and Pashto at their desks. In this room are some of the most sophisticated computer systems available, and a team of people surfing the Web in chat rooms for terrorist information.

Mr. COHEN: I've spent 35 years in the federal agencies, and I think the federal government has a great deal to learn from, you know, the things we've done here in the NYPD.

SULLIVAN: In fact, the CIA showed up here to learn how this office managed to find some highly valuable information on the Web it hadn't seen before. Cohen says lately with agents undercover all over the city and a ready pool of linguists in New York, this intelligence division is more likely to be feeding federal agencies threat information than the other way around. And that's what has the FBI worried. After spending years trying to centralize threat information, FBI officials say New York could wind up creating another autonomous intelligence agency, jeopardizing sensitive ongoing investigations. But Cohen says the city needs specific information the bureau can't or won't provide.

Mr. COHEN: We're outpacing their willingness to share that fine-grained stuff, so it's a learning process. You know, you fight, they catch up, you advance, have another fight, but as long as you're always moving forward, that's the key.

SULLIVAN: Moving forward for New York means taking the intelligence they're gathering and putting it to use every day in the city with or without the FBI.

Unidentified Man #1: Here we go.

(Soundbite of police siren)

SULLIVAN: At least three times a day, New York's intelligence division sends 100 officers to swarm a specific location that their information suggests could be a target. It's called a surge. On this day, that location is 65th and Broadway. Inspector Vincent DeMarino gathers a group of captains in a large police RV for a briefing.

Inspector VINCE DeMARINO (New York City Police): You guys have all done this before, and I'm glad that, you know, we're getting some familiar faces now. I think most of the captains' ranks have done this all at least once, which is great. People are getting...

SULLIVAN: Officers will spend the next five or six hours fanning out into the neighborhood, the shops and the subway, asking questions and looking for anything suspicious.

Insp. DeMARINO: All right. Counterterrorism crime. Why are we out here? It's part of our everyday counterterrorism strategy. OK?

SULLIVAN: As the officers spread out, Inspector DeMarino and Sergeant Robert Brady head down into the subway at 72nd and Broadway.

(Soundbite of subway trains)

Sergeant ROBERT BRADY (New York City Police): And, you know, the rush hour in Manhattan in the course of a half-hour, an hour of doing this, literally thousands and thousands of people will see us, which, you know, can't be a bad thing.

SULLIVAN: Acting on the intelligence division's information, the officers are looking for anything suspicious.

Insp. DeMARINO: And there are cops lined up from one end of the platform to the other, so that as each train pulls in, each car, each door almost, will have a cop stepping in and out.

(Soundbite of announcement)

Unidentified Man #2: Attention, ladies and gentlemen. This train will be held in the station temporarily for the police to make an inspection of the train...

Insp. DeMARINO: If anybody is riding these trains--I'm not saying it's happening--but if anyone was sent out on a mission to come here and ride these trains and go back and report on what they see, we want their report to include that there were cops all over the place.

SULLIVAN: It takes the officers less than a minute to inspect each car. New York's been paying extra attention to its subways since the Madrid train bombings last year.

(Soundbite of subway trains)

SULLIVAN: Immediately after that bombing, and without consultation, New York sent its own intelligence team to Madrid. The FBI was furious. FBI Assistant Director Louis Quijos calls incidents like Madrid a stumble in an otherwise good relationship. He says talk of competition between the two is overblown.

Mr. LOUIS QUIJOS (FBI Assistant Director): We deal with New York PD and the larger agencies every day of the year, 24/7, and you're going to have those stumbles, so probably won't be the last time you hear Commissioner Kelly or maybe even another chief or police superintendent say that maybe they didn't get something they needed at the time they needed it, but it's not because we're not trying.

SULLIVAN: But Bo Dietl, a former New York police detective and friend of Commissioner Ray Kelly, sees the situation in less diplomatic terms.

Mr. BO DIETL (Former Detective): New York City is my home. This is Ray Kelly's home. This is the New York City Police Department. We want to protect our home. We are a target, and Ray and the boys are going out there and they're trying to protect this city the best they can, and tough bananas to the FBI if they don't like it.

SULLIVAN: And New York officials say in Madrid they got what they went for, detailed information about how al-Qaeda puts together a subway bombing, and any tension it created hasn't stopped them from traveling to Moscow, Turkey and Bali to investigate bombings there as well.

John Cutter recently left as deputy chief in charge of the intelligence division. He says one-on-one FBI agents and police officers work well together, but with the stakes so high in New York, Cutter says Commissioner Kelly won't back down.

Mr. JOHN CUTTER (Former Deputy Chief, Intelligence Division): It's actually a very bold move on his part to stick to his guns and say, `Look, I know we're the police department and we deal with crime, but terrorism is just a higher level of crime, and we have to know about it. If it's in our midst, I need somebody to investigate it,' that answers to him, and that would be the intelligence division.

SULLIVAN: In the meantime, the FBI may just have to get used to what New York has started. Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix and a handful of other cities have all come to visit, asking how they, too, can have their own intelligence divisions.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

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