Times Square bomb scare may mean new levels of security in the U.S., says former police chief

The fallout of the attempted bombing in Times Square raises some new, and uncomfortable, questions about the level of security in public places

As the events related to the attempted car bombing in Times Square unfold, John Timoney is watching. Timony, now Senior Vice President of Consulting & Investigations with security firm Andrews International, spent 29 years with the New York City Police Department, achieving the rank of First Deputy Police Commissioner. He also served as the Chief of Police of the Miami Police Department and is the former Police Commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department.

Timoney was on the NYPD during the first bombing attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and was called upon to testify about security before the 9/11 Commission. CSO asked Timoney of his impressions of what is going in New York, and how this attempt might impact security operations there, and around the country.

CSO: As you've been watching events unfold in the attempted bombing of this area of Times Square, what stands out the most?

John Timoney: In the last three or four terrorist attempts, it has been people who have lived in America. Going back to the Christmas day bombing attempt on an aircraft, to the shootings at Fort Hood, these are people who have resided in America, or, in the case of the Christmas-attempted bombing, were schooled in America. They don't fit easily into any kind of a profile. They don't have any kind of pedigree where they are going to come up on the radar screen.

Also see Bomb Threat Procedures in CSOonline's Security Tools, Templates and Policies library

The real problem with this guy accused of planting the bomb in Times Square is he has gone through the process of naturalization. The assumption is that once someone becomes a full-fledged American, they swear loyalty to the country. But apparently, that's not the case.

There may be a tendency here to be too proud of ourselves for managing to successfully assimilate Arab Americans into mainstream society. You don't see the kind of isolation here that you see in some parts of Europe. I think we may have been too self-satisfied that we didn't have the problems they have in some countries.

But with this person and others, they are not part of central Al Quaeda . It looks like these so-called "average Americans" are susceptible to the stuff they find on the internet. They don't have to go to Pakistan or the Mid-East to get radicalized. And it opens a new chapter for us on what are some of the problems we face.

Would you say that perception has impacted the investigation at all?

I think early on when this was first discovered, because it didn't go off, there was a tendency to think this was an amateur. We should never jump to conclusions and be dismissive. It's been my experience that when you get big events like this, the first information you receive is wrong.

There was a similar tendency at first in the investigation of Major Hasan (who is accused of the November 2009 shooting at Fort Hood). But when they examined further, he was in regular contact with Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen and this resulted in an act where 32 people were killed.

The bombing attempt in Times Square really mirrors the kind of public-space attacks seen in countries that have historically dealt with these kinds of terrorist acts on a regular basis, such as in Israel. As a result, security is very high in many parts of these countries. What are the implications for security now in the United States?

On the front end, in terms of prevention, the best way is to have some kind of informant. Unfortunately I think we need to expand the use of informants. Also, clearly, in highly attractive targets, in any popular area, in any iconic building or structure, the more physical security you have in terms of guards, the better off you are.

There is also the use of CCTV cameras. Here in US we are a little behind the times. If you want to see how effective a camera is, go to Israel or Northern Ireland, where they deal with this regularly. When a bombing occurs, these cameras are critical in assisting investigators in getting to the bottom of the conspiracy rather quickly. You don't have to waste time trying to figure out what person looked like, or wondering were there witnesses. While they may not prevent, they are a deterrent. And if the crime happens, they are very helpful in the follow-up investigation.

Police constantly talk about the public—the average citizen—as the eyes and ears for the police. There is a slogan or campaign in many cities urging people to say something if they see something suspicious. These campaigns are sometimes criticized as not paying off. But I think what we saw the other night in New York was a street vendor acted immediately when he saw something suspicious and got the police there. They were able to get a response, get it under control.

Do you anticipate push back from people who may feel there is too much security and that it goes too far?

Yes, and that is a legitimate concern. My sense is that the way you deal with that is you make these arrests, you break up these cells.

When bombings become part of every-day life, as they are in some countries, the vast majority of people are willing to give up so-called "normal life." At the end of the day, our most basic right is the right to be secure in our person and in our home. Once you start to threaten that, unfortunately the whole issue of liberty takes a second seat. Hopefully things won't get to that level in the United States.

After the attacks on September 11, I thought the reaction of the American public was quite measured. Not a lot of talk of revenge and retaliation. That was good. But if there had been, in close proximity, another bombing that impacted a couple thousand of people, I think it would have changed American society drastically.

Also see Fear Factor for a look at the psychological effect of security threats

What positives have been accomplished in security in the wake of terrorist attacks in the last decade?

When you look at the way federal law enforcement works now with local law enforcement it's not perfect yet, but it's way better. They are working toward the common goal of preventing terrorist attacks.

After 9/11 , I testified before Congress and my closing remarks were "The next piece of information I get from the FBI will be the first piece I've ever received." There was no sharing of information in the past. As a result of 9/11 and the 9/11 Commission, and as a result of the embarrassing errors of the intelligence community, there is now a greater willingness to share intelligence information.

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