My first brush with terrorism came in 1973, when I was 18 and living in London on what the English call a working holiday. It was a weird time to be a teenager at large in the United Kingdom. London was under siege from a relentless IRA bombing campaign. Bobbies patrolled the streets for explosives. Posters and public announcements in the underground told Londoners to report suspicious bags. Bombs seemed to be going off everywhere, in cars and pubs and shopping arcades and telephone kiosks. Bomb threats were common-one was phoned into a Leicester Square movie theater while I was watching The Sting. On occasion I actually heard a distant explosion; more commonly, the wail of sirens. London was an exciting place to be; the bombs heightened the excitement, but did not seem directed at me, an invincible 18-year-old American.
On December 21, 1973, I went to a post office near Trafalgar Square to call my girlfriend back home. As I waited for a phone, I heard a loud thump, as if a huge fist had pounded on a drum the size of a house. A bomb, certainly, and to my ears it sounded like it might have been detonated right outside the post office, though in fact it had gone off more than a hundred yards away. I walked outside into noisy chaos familiar to anyone who has watched newscasts from Israel in recent months. Pulsing blue lights swept the darkness; police cars sped by in one direction and people fled in the other. This was too close, and I had no desire to linger. As I walked home up Charing Cross Road, wired with adrenaline, scanning parked cars with a horrible new interest, something had changed.
I had experienced the profound shift in understanding that can follow a brush with disaster: Where there had been a kind of blinkered, confident obliviousness, now there was a panicky conviction about my utter vulnerability.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers
boarded four jetliners, none having been stopped by the Swiss cheese operation that passed for airport security, and launched an attack that caused a nationwide shift in perception like the one I had experienced courtesy of the IRA. America suddenly had its technology turned against it with box cutters and domestic flight-school training. Pilots were murdered, transponders turned off, and commercial airplanes flown into symbols of wealth, government, and military power-while high-tech U.S. defense systems desperately and fruitlessly tried to figure out what was going on.
Ever since, we’ve been told by our government to expect more attacks, with the addition of a handy color-coded system to tell us how nervous we should be. What we’ve not been told as often is that, at the big-city level, at ground zero, where so many Americans live, the degree of protection remains woefully low-not much better than it was before September 11. Much of the problem is money, and the will to find it. In a June survey, an overwhelming majority of city mayors claimed they lacked the resources and technology to protect their cities, with more than three-quarters saying they were unable to pay for detection and emergency-response equipment. That may begin to change this fall, thanks to a White House pledge of $3.5 billion to city, county, and state governments for first-responder technology and crews. That money would come a full year after the attacks.
What we have, in the starkest terms, is a national deficit in equipment, technology, and experience. “None of us here ever anticipated such an attack as occurred on 9/11,” admits Sgt. Steve Dixon of the San Jose police department. “So obviously we have never prepared for such a thing.”
City police departments are struggling. “As far as technology is concerned,” says R. Gil Kerlikowske, chief of the Seattle police department, “we simply don’t have enough money to buy most of the advanced technology. We hope the federal government will help.” Kerlikowske’s first wish is not for portable radiation-detection equipment or gamma ray truck scanners like those being rushed into use in ports. He wants a better search engine for his computers, to ferret out license plate numbers from scattered arrest records.
This broad lack of preparedness at the urban level reflects that seen at U.S. airports on September 11. “The rest of the world,” says Ian Gilchrist, former head of security at Hong Kong airport and now a consultant, “has had more than 20 years in which to evolve its security system following the era of hijackings in the late 1970s and the in-flight bombings of the early ’80s. The United States was thinking, ‘It will never happen here.’ So, while the rest of the world was learning, thinking, growing, the United States did nothing.”
What is difficult at airports is a thousand times harder, experts warned me, in cities. Airports are relatively small, controlled environments. Access can theoretically be limited until every passenger and employee passes through an eye-of-the-needle checkpoint. If security personnel are well-trained and equipped, it ought to be possible to keep an airport secure. Cities are big, open, sloppy systems, in which millions of people move about freely and unpredictably.
“We can’t restrict the free movement and access of every single person that comes into this city,” says Margret Kellems, who, as Washington, D.C.’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice, oversees the District’s fire, police, and emergency response departments. “If somebody wants to strap dynamite to their chest and walk into a public space downtown, that’s very difficult to detect. Obviously you try, you try to be aware.”
Yet Washington has demonstrated that systematic technological responses to terrorist threats are possible at the urban level, money and will permitting. (Federal money helps.) Consider the D.C. transit system. Officials in Washington began evaluating its vulnerabilities in 1995, responding to the sarin nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway, which killed 12 and injured thousands. Then in October 2001, D.C. officials asked Congress and the White House for $190 million for security enhancements. In April, they asked for an additional $107 million. Although so far they have received only $49 million, D.C. officials are putting their plans into action. They’ve purchased motion detectors for rail and bus yards in case someone tries to plant a time-delayed bomb; they’ve bought GPS-based Automatic Vehicle Locators that sound an alarm if a bus is driven off its planned route or is stolen from its yard at night. There is a pilot program to put digital cameras on buses, a plan to install fiber-optics to relay pictures from in-station closed-circuit (CCTV) cameras, and a drive to upgrade the public address systems in all Metro stations. This is a publicized initiative, and the public is being marshaled: D.C. Metro officials have distributed “Dear Fellow Rider” brochures, asking passengers to make suggestions on prepaid postcards.
The D.C. Metro is the first subway system in the world to be equipped with chemical weapons sensors. (Not even Tokyo has them.) Two stations had been fitted with them even before September 11; 10 more are now being outfitted and $20 million of that extra $107 million is earmarked for 15 further stations. Eventually, all stations may have the sensors, with biological-agent detectors retrofitted when available. In the event of a chemical attack, Metro is equipping not only its emergency response teams but all Metro workers with protective gear, including masks like those used in Israel. “Since the sarin gas attack of 1995 we have had a motto in our department never to toe-tag a first responder,” says Metro Transit Police Chief Barry McDevitt.
Of course, Washington is a relatively small city, built to serve government. New York is massive and unruly. Early this year New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Frank Libutti, a former three-star Marine lieutenant general and special assistant for homeland security, to the new city post of deputy commissioner for counter-terrorism. The NYPD has hired an infectious disease specialist and created a board of doctors to advise on nuclear, chemical, and biological threats. What Libutti’s group is up to is largely a secret. Although New Yorkers periodically hear bulletins about beefed up security-bridges and tunnels are occasionally shut down, or subject to stepped-up vehicle searches-and have witnessed massive police response to events like the World Economic Forum in late January and the July 4 fireworks, New York security officials are not keeping a high profile or handing out a lot of brochures. (Ads for a new antiterror hotline appeared in newspapers in June, but officials were not forthcoming.) Libutti was unavailable to talk to Popular Science, and, when asked if someone else could describe the antiterrorism strategy, a spokesman declined: “His office is made up of police officers, and police officers have never dealt with this issue before.” Meanwhile, officials in Mayor Bloomberg’s office refused to comment, though one conceded that there’s not much to talk about until the cities, states, and the federal government agree to fund new technologies and address manpower needs. By summer, the hot topic was the new Department of Homeland Security.
The Port Authority, the agency that protects New York’s bridges and tunnels, did say that things are being done: “We do have bomb-sniffing dogs, but I can’t discuss what they are doing,” said agency spokesperson Steve Coleman, adding that trucks and vans were being stopped and inspected, but only on a random basis now.
In late spring I conducted a two-day walkabout in New York, eyeing infrastructure for signs of technological responses to 9/11. Accompanying me was Paul Quellin, an English consultant who managed security training at Manchester Airport for 10 years and was over here leading seminars for the U.S. Department of Energy. Granting that many changes to New York’s security system may be invisible (beyond the deployment of soldiers in Penn Station and the like), what I saw with Quellin was . . . not much.
Consider the simple matter of garbage cans. In the D.C. Metro system, containers identified as potential receptacles for bombs were removed. In New York, Quellin immediately pointed to the black metal cans on the subway platforms as shrapnel waiting to happen. “The metal is the bomb,” he told me, peering glumly into one. “Put enough explosive in these and you’ve got torn steel going 200 meters a second.”
This is basic stuff: In England, where the IRA began using trash “bins” as bomb receptacles years ago, many outdoor bins now have a 2-inch lining of fiberglass-reinforced plastic, which contains the force of a blast and directs it skyward. Last year, an English company called Aigis Engineering Solutions began marketing indoor bins lined with a blast-absorption composite called TABRE topped by layers of water and air, a system that’s designed to turn the blast into steam. D.C. officials earmarked a million dollars to buy explosive-resistant garbage cans from a company called Mistral Security, which has installed them in a number of New York public spaces, including Penn and Grand Central stations.
Or consider the more complex matter of protecting large urban office towers. Even in New York, building security, which tightened after 9/11, loosened not long after. “For a time after 9/11, we did spot-checks (of bags),” one manager of a business tower told me. He seemed resigned to a largely-though not necessarily unimportant-symbolic effort. “You have to be reasonable. The technology today means a bomb could be hidden in your cellphone or pager.”
Adds a veteran Drug Enforcement Administration officer, now head of security at a midtown tower: “Everybody is looking for that silver bullet that will guarantee that if you do X, Y, or Z, you will be safe forever. It’s not out there.”
Much of the office tower security Quellin and I observed seemed haphazard at best, pointless at worst. At one landmark building I noticed that despite a sign proclaiming that all bags, briefcases, and packages were subject to inspection, not a single one was actually inspected during the time I watched. Much of what passes for security in buildings consisted of looking at driver’s licenses and employee ID cards.
“There’s a mindset,” says Ian Gilchrist, “within airports and in buildings too, favoring photo ID. It’s being touted as a security measure. It has no security effect whatsoever.” ID cards are easily forged or swapped, and, in the case of many building security checks, there is no link between ID cards and a database that might verify current employment. Driver’s licenses and other state-issued IDs are dubious at best. More sophisticated biometric systems could be years away.
This matter of privacy in the prevention of terrorism illustrates a clear transatlantic divide. In Quellin’s view, CCTV could improve security in a city like New York. While the structure and vast extent of the tunnels and platforms in the New York City subway system make the deployment of chemical weapon sensors along the D.C. model expensive and tricky, Manhattan’s broad, straight avenues make it ideally suited to TV cameras-far more suited than London’s cramped, winding streets. “You wouldn’t need as many here,” he said, “so it would be cheaper.”
England is gaga over CCTV technology, although new debate has raged this summer about its efficacy; the Guardian reported that between 1996 and 1998 CCTV technology made up three-quarters of the Home Office crime prevention budget. The cameras were first deployed in number in the early ’90s, at least partially in response to IRA bombings. When they seemed to have a deterrent effect on crime in general, and led to high-profile non-terrorist criminal convictions, the Brits installed more and more. There are some 150,000 cameras in London and the average Londoner supposedly appears on one or another of them 300 times a day. Surveillance, to Londoners, is a fact of life, and for many a comfort.
Less of a comfort to Americans. Here it is assumed that a citizen has the right to move through a public place without being watched-although surveillance is routine in many cities. In 1998 the New York Civil Liberties Union counted 2,397 surveillance cameras in Manhattan; a map is posted on the Web. The number has risen since then. Quellin spotted them everywhere, with more being installed: over doors, on roofs, overlooking fountains, at skating rinks and stadiums. Many cabs have them, as does my apartment building and even the nice little Greenwich Village restaurant where I eat lunch. (It’s not only a New York thing: San Francisco’s BART system is updating its 30-year-old CCTV technology, with color digital cameras already in use at one station and more due to come online in another by year’s end.)
“It’s interesting to hear Americans talk about their fear of CCTV,” Quellin said with a smile, as we stood outside the New York Stock Exchange, gazing up at yet another of the smoked glass balls discreetly mounted on the corners of many New York buildings. “There’s a lot of it here already.”
The emphasis on CCTV highlights a key problem: manpower shortage. CCTVs provide a technological assist for what is essentially a beat-patrol job. “Most of what is available for outdoor security is meant to protect places where there isn’t supposed to be normal vehicular or pedestrian traffic,” says John Sczepanski, vice president for business development for Magal Security Systems, an Israeli firm. “There are electromagnetic sensors that can detect people or vehicles going over a surface, but those are meant for areas where there isn’t supposed to be anybody. Fifth Avenue in New York? There’s nothing you can do but put a lot of CCTV cameras in place and have someone monitoring it all the time.”
Yes, radiation and bomb-detection equipment can be deployed on a limited basis for special events, or in stadium entrances, but these are impractical for routine public-space patrols. The director of emergency management in Indianapolis, for example, has outfitted robots with chemical detection equipment to augment handheld sensors at important events, but says, “We have no plans for permanent air-sampling equipment. We can’t sample everything all the time.” On New Year’s Eve, the NYPD used handheld radiation monitors borrowed from the U.S. Customs Service to screen the crowd in Times Square. But day-to-day security is accomplished by a crew of 52 security officers who walk the streets, serving as the eyes and ears of the police.
Today, most CCTV cameras simply record. No one is watching; tape is studied after the fact. But Americans don’t want to see tape of the next Mohamed Atta breezing toward his date with destiny. Spotting suspects or suspicious behavior in real time is the challenge. Personnel hired to watch cameras bore easily; software is needed to recognize individuals or trouble, and alert staff. Into this category falls facial recognition software such as that developed by Identix, a Minnesota biometric technology company, which got a lot of attention on Memorial Day weekend when its software was used to scan crowds visiting the Statue of Liberty.
The ACLU blasted the Identix test, calling it an insult to the nation’s beacon of liberty, and warned that the software fails to identify people who are threats while turning up many false positives. In Washington, at a June City Council meeting to discuss creating an integrated network of CCTVs by linking police, subway, and school cameras, an ACLU lawyer warned that “there is no record of the (150,000 cameras in London) being involved in the apprehension of a single terrorist.” (Later he conceded there may be one case, a 1993 bombing at Harrods caught on film, which led to arrests.)
Manufacturers and supporters wave away the privacy concerns: “There’s a way this can be done where it doesn’t violate civil liberties,” insists Identix spokesman Meir Kahtan. “The camera isn’t looking for you or me. It’s looking for that small group on the Watch List. If there’s no match, it doesn’t keep your face.”
Another strategy uses CCTV technology to spot trouble in real time. The Cromatica program from the Digital Imaging Research Centre at London’s Kingston University looks for anomalies in pedestrian traffic flow: people stopping for long periods, people running, or crowds bunching. It alerts staff, who zero in and decide whether the situation warrants police attention. It also spots unattended baggage and, using its memory function, finds the person who left it. The program has been used, with promising early results, the designers say, in London’s Liverpool Street train station.
The new element in all this is terror by suicide. In Israel, suicide attacks have been devastatingly effective against police efforts. Nor are bombproof bins a help if the terrorist is the bomb (though there is nothing to indicate that would be the approach on U.S. soil). Whether against a single McVeigh-style extremist or a group with grandiose ambitions, there is no magical-technological solution to the threat to cities. There is no prophylactic bubble of integrated warning systems that would shield a city-a localized Star Wars, if you will-providing early warnings of all biological, chemical, or explosive threats as they approach.
“If that were possible,” notes Robert Strang, a former DEA agent working for Decision Strategies, a global security and investigation firm, “Israel would have it. The real goal, the real answer, is intelligence. We’ve got to be aggressive about knowing what’s going on in these terrorist criminal organizations.”
Hence the focus on the failures of intelligence gathering in the period before September 11. However secure harbors and airports and other points of urban entry can be made-and for the foreseeable future there will be many holes-improved intelligence is vital.
Most experts I talked to were as concerned about training and legwork as technology. They noted that low-tech solutions can be among the most effective for deterrence, detection, and response: bomb-sniffing dogs (eight more in training for the D.C. Metro system, bringing its total to 11); better communication systems (two-way wireless radios with e-mail pagers for command staff in Indianapolis); more information and heightened awareness (information about weaponized diseases circulated to physicians in San Jose); and evacuation drills. These may not be as sexy as facial recognition software and air-sniffing robots, but, as Strang points out, “Tens of thousands of lives were spared on 9/11 because people didn’t just sit at their desks when the alarm went off.” Dozens of others, mostly firemen, died because police and fire radio systems did not work together.
Unlike my friends in London, and the Israelis who send newborns home with gas masks, we’re new to all this. “It’s going to be a major change for Americans over the next 10 years,” says Strang. “Obviously, this problem is here to stay and we are unfortunately now part of this global problem.”
But September 11 also left room to reflect on the strength of cities. The size, disorder, and vitality of our cities make them hard to protect, but also extraordinarily resilient. As horrible as the attacks were, they neither stopped nor much slowed down Washington and New York. Security systems utterly let us down, but the response to the emergency was heroic. The remarkable thing is not that the attacks on these cities happened; it’s that, in a crucial way, they failed.