Journalism in the Public Interest

Bloomberg on NYPD Counter-Terrorism Record: “We’ll Never Know.”

The mayor, who previously said the NYPD had stopped 14 plots, now says he believes it’s impossible to know for sure how many plots the NYPD has thwarted.

Responding to our story from earlier today on whether the New York Police Department has really thwarted 14 terror plots, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters it’s impossible to say for sure how many plots the NYPD has stopped.

After a press conference on transportation policy this afternoon in Queens, the mayor was asked by NY1’s Josh Robin how confident he is in the oft-invoked statistic that the NYPD had stopped 14 terrorist plots since 9/11. We reported that the figure overstated the number of serious terrorist plots targeting New York and exaggerated the NYPD’s role in stopping plots.

“I could make as cogent an argument there’s double or triple the number that were stopped, we just don’t know about it,” the mayor responded. “If [terrorists] want to attack here, the NYPD has a 1,000 police officers devoted to intelligence and counter-terrorism looking to stop you. And you might look at those odds and say, ‘I don’t want to run that risk.’ We’ll never know.”

“We have to be right 100 percent of the time,” Bloomberg added. “The terrorists only have to be right once and you’re dead. Now you want to make some noise about the study — they can study anything they want. I don’t know how you prove it one way or another.”

Our report was based on a list of 14 plots that the NYPD itself has published on a city website. In March, Bloomberg himself said “we have stopped 14 attacks since 9/11.”

We have followed up with the mayor’s office to see whether the NYPD and the city will continue citing the 14 figure, and we will update this post if we hear back.

[UPDATE: The city has taken down the video of Bloomberg's comments that originally appeared here.]

Growing up watching Sesame Street, I can’t help think of the old banana sketch:

Ernie, why is that banana still in your ear?
Listen, Bert. I use the banana to keep the alligators away!
Alligators? Ernie, there are no alligators on Sesame Street!
Right! It’s doing a good job. Isn’t it, Bert?

To me, the whole “counterterrorism culture” is offensive and counter to the values I grew up with.  This CYA attitude, caught in an outright lie, is just a tiny part of a much larger problem that officials now expect us to earn their trust while trusting them unquestioningly.

Especially since—I guess I have to come out and say it—if these fourteen plots were the “big ones” in ten years, then the terrorists don’t really have their hearts in it.  You can kill and scare a lot more people poisoning any large mall during the Christmas shopping season and get much more attention by taking hostages at a hospital or school.  That they’d allegedly rather blow up a plane over the ocean or (snicker) destroy the Brooklyn Bridge says that they’re either comically inept or…not actually trying to kill us.

If it’s the latter, then what does it say for the country in general and New York in particular to spend so much militarizing our society to match this half-assed threat?

Walter D. Shutter, Jr.

July 11, 2012, 3:49 p.m.

Famous quote: “In a Demmocracy, the people get the government they deserve”.
So, how many of you voted for Bloomberg?

James M. Fitzsimmons

July 11, 2012, 7:55 p.m.

The “good citizen” report to NYPD of the suspicious vehicle that led to the successful counter-terrorist prosecution was encouraged by the NYPD et. al. messages to the public i.e. “If you see something, say something.” So proactive law enforcement, in fact, works.  A dismissive attitude towards the existential threat of terrorism by public officials is what we cannot afford. If Kelly and Bloomberg exaggerated on some other specific cases analyzed by ProPublica then they now stand corrected. Wonderful investigative work, now perhaps you can serve the public by exposing some incipient terrorist plot, a covert terrorist meeting place or maybe identify a radicalizing agent who is recruiting operatives.

I have to agree with the “Alligator control on the Mississippi” thing There are no Alligators on the Mississippi! “Thats right the Government is doing a Good job aren’t they” so just be Glad that Superman, Batman, Alderman and the rest are there to save you from yourselves (Collectively) Then again you never know! (Holy Shyt Batman) here we go again!!!!!!!

Walter, that quote doesn’t begin or end at voting.  It ends when we stop holding leaders up to scrutiny.  If you want to hide behind, “well, somebody voted for him” to avoid responsibility, then YOU deserve what you get, not the people complaining.  Certainly not the people outside the city complaining before it comes to a theater near you.

James, the point of the Times Square “dig,” I believe, was that Times Square is pretty high on police presence, what with the station right there.  Also, to many people around the world, Times Square IS “The City,” so it’s a prime target.  No matter how well the NYPD resolved the issue, it was politically a serious black eye for them, especially with the budget cuts threatened.

Russell V. Smith

July 15, 2012, 10:25 p.m.

It is disturbing that Pro-Publica has chosen to stand by an inadequately researched and reed thin piece on counter-terrorism from a reporter with no significant experience, nor journalistic chops in this field.  Readers, for example, deserve better than a 70 word treatment of the Shahzad Times Square bombing attempt which concludes with simply an opinion by the writer unsupported by any significant research. For openers, the most rudimentary due diligence might have addressed the reasons why Shahzad was unable to obtain the high grade ammonium nitrate fertilizer for a truly powerful explosive.  It turns out that personnel from the NYPD, in the aftermath of 9/11 fanned out across the tri-state area to contact each and every supplier of this lethal component to carefully register and record anyone seeking to make a purchase.  Shahzad had to back off and settle for lower grade stuff.  Elliott, had he taken the time to look carefully at this case, could have searched out this and other details that would have better informed readers. Regrettably, he chose not to do so. Pro-Publica has to its credit set high standards for the quality of its writing. The Elliot piece departs from this norm and simply plays to the gallery. Pro-Publica can do better. In time, Mr. Elliot may come to produce work of the caliber of that of Dina Temple-Raston, Tom Gjelton or Christopher Dickey, who wrote the definitive book on the NYPD’s counter-terrorism program in 2009.  For now, we cannot call opinions, unsupported by serious research and knowledge of events, quality journalism. No matter how assuredly the author decides to voice them.

The problem with having been exposed to intelligence acquisition work of various types from a tender young age?  It changes the way you think…for example, I see “Oh, they’re so effective…” followed by hard data refuting that assertion followed by “Oh, we don’t - can’t - know how effective they are but nevertheless they’re invaluable…”

And me…the fact that the known or stated efficiency with which their known or stated primary responsibility is fulfilled is moot immediately leads me to the working hypothesis that an as-yet-undiscovered feature set or service provided does indeed make the NYPD’s counter-“terrorist” unit invaluable to Bloomberg.

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