Foreign Affairs Focus: Ray Kelly on Counterterrorism

Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, sits down with Ray Kelly, former New York City Police Commissioner.

In the interview, Kelly describes setting up the New York City Police Department's counterterrorism bureau, its strategy for preventing terrorist attacks after 9/11, the department's diversity efforts, and its collaboration with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. He also comments on recent lawsuits against the department, the controversy surrounding its stop-and-frisk tactics, the decline in New York City's crime rate, and the legacy of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. A transcript is available below:

ROSE: Hi there, and welcome to another edition of "Foreign Affairs Focus." I'm Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs, and I have the great pleasure today to have with me Commissioner Ray Kelly, the former commissioner of the New York City Police Department who's now a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Commissioner Kelly, welcome.

KELLY: Great to be with you.

ROSE: So after 9/11, you built literally an unprecedented counterterrorism department at the municipal level, in the New York City Police Department. Can you tell me about that effort, why it was necessary, what you did, and what its accomplishments were?

KELLY: Well, before Mayor Bloomberg took office, just after his election, the mayor and I realized that we had to do something more to protect New York City, because it had been successfully attacked by terrorists twice. Over 3,000 people had been killed here. So we needed to do something to supplement what the federal government was doing, certainly not to supplant it, but to put an additional level of security in place.

So that's when we decided to put in our own counterterrorism bureau, the first of its kind of any police department in the country. We brought in experts from the federal government, experts from academia to come in and help us better protect the city. And I believe that's what we did. We're proud of our accomplishment. There was no successful terrorist attack in New York City since 9/11, hasn't been, despite 16 attempts that we know of to attack the city.

We use technology, we use, as I say, federal expertise, we use the vast diversity of the New York City Police Department. We have police officers born in 106 countries, and they speak 80 languages and dialects, so it gives us tremendous strength in that area to conduct meaningful investigations.

ROSE: Now, some of the operations involved intelligence operations, not just counterterrorism operations, and some of those were somewhat controversial. You want to talk about some of those?

KELLY: Not the controversial ones. (LAUGHTER)

No, we -- what we did was to use the capacity, the strength of the department, as I said, to follow leads. And we'll follow leads wherever they -- they take us. There should be no sanctuary, so to speak. So, yes, we followed leads. We have been the subject of litigation on the part of various groups alleging that we've done something of an unconstitutional nature. That has not proven to be the case in courts.

We have a cadre of first-rate, world-class attorneys that monitored all of our activities. And I feel confident that we'll continue to succeed in the courts. There was just the case that was thrown out just in the last few days in New Jersey, a federal court, brought by a group of individuals in New Jersey saying that somehow we were, quote, "spying on them" and thereby diminishing their income potential, that sort of thing. This was dismissed by the judge.

So New York is the most litigious environment in the world. The fact that we are sued or the subject of litigation, it really should be a known real consequence to see what the decisions are, and so far, there haven't been any decisions against the department in this area.

ROSE: As you said, this was sort of unprecedented for a municipal department, this kind of scale of operations. How did it involve coordination with the state and the national level, even international level?

KELLY: Sure. We are part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and the FBI runs the Joint Terrorism Task Force in I think 56 locations throughout the country. They work with local police agencies and other types of agencies that sort of are pended to the JTTF concept.

We share information with the JTTF. They do it on a daily basis. There are 120 New York City police investigators working with the JTTF now. And, by the way, on September 11th, there were 17, so it's been a major increase in that regard.

But we -- the department works very closely with other federal agencies, with state agencies. The department also deployed its own officers in 11 countries, actually 10 countries, 11 cities throughout the world to help protect New York. And what do I mean by that? Well, they're sort of there as tripwires, as a listening post to find out anything going on in these locations that help us better protect the city, and we have them in Abu Dhabi, Amman, Jordan, Tel Aviv, London, Toronto, and Montreal, Singapore, Dominican Republic.

So they're sort of spread out in key locations, critical locations. The difference between what the federal government does in this regard and what the NYPD does is the offices are embedded with local police agencies, so it's a real sort of a cop-to-cop relationship, and I believe it works -- worked very well.

They're also positioned to go to the scenes of terrorist attacks very quickly, so we can get granular information as quickly as possible that will help us better protect our city.

I just would point out one more thing is that the expenses of offices overseas are funded by a private foundation, the New York City Police Foundation, and I think we all have to be appreciative of that.

ROSE: That's great. After the death of bin Laden, after the gradual winding down of at least some aspects of the war on terror, is there still a major threat to New York? Is this going to be an ongoing permanent part of New York security operations? Or was it a temporary surge whose need has basically diminished over time?

KELLY: I think it's fair to say that it's the consensus of the intelligence community that the threat remains constant. Yes, the elimination of Osama bin Laden was a good thing. It was a big event as far as the fight against terrorism.

But today, there's probably more people under the Al Qaida flag, if you will, than ever before. They have created strategic alliances in places like Somalia, in -- in the Maghreb. In Iraq, we see the re-emergence of Al Qaida in Iraq. We see groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria. We see Mali as an area where Al Qaida and Al Qaida influence is strong. And, of course, Yemen, we know that Al Qaida actually controls cities or towns in Yemen.

So the threat in the judgment of the intelligence community has not diminished. And as far as New York City is concerned, in my view, it's going to remain constant for quite a while, because New York is the financial capital, it is the cultural capital, it is the communications capital of the world, and that's how terrorists see it. So an event here has a greater potential for worldwide awareness, you might say, than any place else.

So I think that is -- that has to be the operating premise or assumption as we -- as we go forward, that New York remains high on the -- on the terrorist wish list and that nothing has happened in the recent past to reduce that positioning.

ROSE: Do you worry that a new commissioner, a new mayor may not be as committed to these kinds of goals or maintain the strength of the department in these areas as their predecessors have?

KELLY: Well, I haven't seen any reduction in that regard. And in my mind, that's a good thing, so I haven't seen any significant changes in that regard. We'll have to see what happens down the road.

ROSE: What about broader crime-fighting strategies? In the last decade and more, New York City has seen a remarkable drop in crime over the last two decades. Do you worry about any kind of return to the days of the squeegee men, the days of rampant street crime?

KELLY: Well, we'll have to see what happens. Some of it is based, as you said, on resources and where resources are focused. But just to put it in some perspective, in 1990, we had 2,245 murders in New York City with a population of 7.3 million people. In 2013, we had 333 murders on a population of 8.4 million people. So it increased over a million in population and gone down to, you know, record lows in murders. New York is by far the lowest city per hundred thousand in -- in homicides and murders than any city in America. There are several cities that have a murder rate 10 times greater than New York City, so...

ROSE: And how would you summarize the key things that led to that decrease?

KELLY: Well, I think it's focus, and I think it's commitment, and I think the mayor, Mayor Bloomberg, played a major role. You need support from the top, and that's what the department receives from Mayor Bloomberg. I think we have more information and better information than we've ever had before. I think we had very committed police officers and we had certainly good leadership in the field that drove a lot of the programs that we put in place forward.

We focused on -- in the last couple of years, we focused on gang violence, or crews, as we call them. These are sort of loosely affiliated groupings of young people, very much turf-oriented. We estimated two years that 30 percent of our murders and shootings were coming from these groups. And we sort of reformed our anti-gang activities. We worked closely with the district attorneys. In the last 18 months, there's been 450 indictments and 25 major investigations. This has put a major crimp in the violence that was attended to this gang activity.

So things are going well. Hopefully they remain going in that direction.

ROSE: How much of a role do you think the whole stop-and-frisk program played in the decline? And do you think any changes in that program will be detrimental going forward?

KELLY: Well, it's not a program. And a lot of people say that it's a program. It's not. It is a tool. It is a tool that is fundamental to the policing not only in New York City, but in every jurisdiction in America, and it happens in every jurisdiction in America. And if somebody says it's not happening, it's just not true.

Every state in the union has legislation that authorizes it. And it's also validated by the Supreme Court decision, Terry v. Ohio. So you can't tie it to one program, but it is something that is absolutely essential for police officers on patrol. They need that capacity, and that's what we pay them for. We want them to investigate suspicious activity, and we want them to protect themselves, so if they can articulate a fear for their danger or -- fear for their safety, they can do a limited pat-down or called a frisk. It's not a search, just a pat-down, looking for -- for weapons.

And, by the way, the searches that were done in New York City were much better recorded than any place else. But they still amount to less than one stop a week -- stop, not necessarily a frisk -- stop a week per patrol officer. So it seems to me, when you look at the total context of it, it's eminently reasonable.

ROSE: Well, Commissioner, you were responsible for helping to transform the city into one that's safe to walk around, and we thank you, and we thank you for being with us today.

KELLY: Thank you very much, Gideon.

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