No Backspace: The Public Relations of Counterterrorism

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Commissioner Bratton and Mayor de Blasio on their way to meet reporters to discuss New York's precautions after the Belgium attacks.

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Commissioner Bratton and Mayor de Blasio on their way to meet reporters to discuss New York's precautions after the Belgium attacks.

In the New York Police Department’s never-ending war against terror, they’ve made considerable gains conquering at least one arena: the media.

After scolding Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz over comments he made about patrolling Muslim neighborhoods in the aftermath of the Brussels attacks, NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton once again took to the opinion pages to interject himself into another story relating to terrorism. He had previously co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times last month to make the law enforcement case against tech giant Apple’s resistance to federal access to its cellphones.

Perhaps taking a political cue from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has repeatedly criticized Republican candidate Donald Trump, Bratton effortlessly snagged the attention of the media as an apparent voice of reason to counter Cruz’s Islamophobic hysteria. The irony, of course, runs deep. The NYPD has long spied on Muslim communities and Bratton had his own Muslim-mapping program criticized in Los Angeles when he was the police chief there.

But never mind those inconvenient details, the NYPD will make great use of the press and attention that Bratton delivers for its own purposes: counterterrorism funding.

No Backspace features a recurring cast of opinion writers passionate about New York people, policies and politics. Click here to read more.

No Backspace is City Limits' new blog featuring a recurring cast of opinion writers passionate about New York people, policies and politics. Click here to read more.

Earlier this month, Mayor de Blasio went down to Washington D.C. to testify against proposed budget cuts to New York’s Homeland Security funding. Previously, Bratton and Senator Chuck Schumer had railed against the White House for the proposed cuts, which the Obama administration explained was because the NYPD hadn’t even used the entirety of the funds they had been given during the previous grant cycle. Bratton reasoned that this was a political rebuke of Schumer for not going along with the Obama sanctions game-plan against Iran.

Whether the White House actually intends to trim some its DHS funding to the city (they are likely low-balling only temporarily), the city and the police department are intent on making as much noise about it as possible–especially after Brussels.

Not only do they have Bratton, as media-savvy a police commissioner as there is in the country, they also have an influential voice that has blurred the lines between law enforcement and media for years in Deputy Commissioner John Miller.

Miller worked as as a local journalist in New York until 1994 when a younger Commissioner Bratton brought him on as a Deputy Commissioner in the Rudy Giuliani administration. Miller went on to ABC News, even co-anchoring the popular 20/20 show with Barbara Walters. In 2003 he returned to law enforcement under Bratton in Los Angeles, this time in the counterterrorism bureau, when Bratton became LAPD chief. He then went on to become the FBI’s national spokesman until returning again to media as a national correspondent for CBS before joining Bratton a third time as the NYPD’s deputy commissioner on counterterrorism.

Miller’s turn to counterterrorism can perhaps be traced back to the time he scored an interview with Osama Bin Laden in 1998 as a correspondent for ABC News, just before attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania would raise Bin Laden’s stature. After 9/11, Bin Laden, whom Miller inexplicably compared to former US president Teddy Roosevelt, came to symbolize a new face of terror that the US government, and local police departments, promised to combat.

The war on terror meant big streams of federal money would flow freely and far. New York, of course, was smack-dab in the middle of the seemingly never-ending business of counterterrorism funding. Miller, with his long resume, could be a great asset in advocating for federal grants, which is likely one of the reasons Bratton brought him back.

Miller is proving his usefulness. The former CBS reporter was interviewed this past Sunday morning on CBS’s Face The Nation to make the case that the Islamic State was evolving into a direct terror threat for New York. This despite Bratton and Mayor de Blasio’s assurances after the Brussels attacks that there were no specific threats to the city. This despite he and Bratton denouncing a New York Post story as “alarmist” for reporting that the NYPD’s counterterrorism overtime was being compromised by the federal cuts.

So which one is it? Will getting only $330 million in federal counterterrorism funding make us unsafe or does the city have enough capacity to defend from an attack? What Miller and Bratton are doing is essentially indistinguishable from what the Post story aimed to do. They are sounding the alarm in their own way. Two years ago Bratton warned of an increasing threat from ‘lone wolf’ terrorists that seems to have been overstated.

Who is the alarmist again?

Still, the specter of Brussels, Paris and even San Bernardino looms large and the NYPD predictably will jump on every opportunity to demand enormous sums of terror funds. But is the NYPD in danger of being underfunded? Bratton testified last week at a city council hearing that the NYPD has already used the increased headcount funding from the city to create the Critical Response Command, a “permanent cadre of 525 hand-selected officers” trained for counter-terrorism. And the NYPD has already created the mysterious data-collecting Domain Awareness System in an effort to further blanket the city in surveillance.

As Bratton and Miller pound the table for more money now, it’s important to note that there are already concerns with what the NYPD’s counterterrorism efforts have done up to this point. At the creation of the CRC and re-organization of the Strategic Response Group, which are said to also police neighborhood ‘disorder’, Bratton publicly tasked both units to repel terrorism and police protests– essentially equating terrorists with demonstrators. The SRG has proven itself an effective addition to the quelling of free speech as it has routinely harassed and arrested those who’ve protested against police brutality. Neither the SRG nor the CRC report to any precinct or are answerable to any precinct community council. They answer only to Bratton and top NYPD brass.

The public relations piece is in place with a media maven like Miller, whose push of the media-law enforcement revolving door has made him familiar face for much of the local and national press corps. However, the question New Yorkers should ask is about the long-term consequences of showering taxpayer dollars, both local and at the federal level, onto a police department that is accountable to virtually no one at the community level.

Of course no one in the media is asking Bratton or Miller those questions. Ted Cruz makes for a much better headline.