Networked Security in the City: A Call to Action for Planners

By Matt Hidek

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States government has developed defensive strategies to protect its cities through a complex web of networked security initiatives. As part of the “Global War on Terror,” the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has partnered with state and local law enforcement agencies to deploy military-based intelligence systems in cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. The continued integration of federal security policies within urban institutions is changing the way cities are governed.

Military doctrine, tactics and technologies continue to shape our cities. Planners play a vital role in the stewardship of cities, and increasingly in the realm of community preparedness. As such, it is imperative that we better understand how anti-terrorism planning is impacting urban planning and policymaking, and foster a discussion of a more inclusive and citizen-oriented form of security for cities.

Legacy of Antiterrorism Systems

On August 15, 2007 we learned that the director of national intelligence and the DHS authorized the expansion of geospatial intelligence systems within U.S. territory. Geospatial intelligence, or “GEOINT,” merges airborne and satellite imagery, maps, charts and environmental information to provide an electronic picture of the Earth’s terrain. While the program’s expansion may have been “news” to the public and met with surprise by some alarmed citizens, this activity had actually been going on for awhile. The program also mirrors a number of governmental networking initiatives enacted since 9/11 that are linked to the military. As Charles Allen, assistant secretary for the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, explained on National Public Radio, “This is not going to be anything unusual. It’s going to be simply an expansion of current activities and a more formalized way of doing some of the things that have been done ad-hoc.”

Ad-hoc is indeed the right word to describe this phenomenon, as today’s urban security systems have evolved from longstanding federal antiterrorism programs, especially since the end of the Cold War. When policy attention was directed to counterterrorism following the 1993 World Trade Center and 1995 Oklahoma City bombings, the military and the Department of Defense (DOD) became the tip of the U.S. government’s bayonet. Efforts intensified following the 1998 attacks on the U.S embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. Military operations in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans and hundreds of overseas forward-operating installations thus became the testbed for antiterrorism methods and technologies. The 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen again renewed the protective stance of the U.S. military, while alarm bells sounded within the national intelligence apparatus based in Washington. Then came 9/11.

The attacks on New York’s World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan and the Pentagon in Northern Virginia created an urgent need for the U.S. to demonstrate that it had the capacity to protect its domestic territory, particularly its urban areas. The question for the Bush administration was how best to do this, and where expertise would come from. Institutional inertia took over as two policy thrusts collided. One focused on the response-oriented mission of disaster preparedness; the other on the preventive posture of protection. For those developing strategy on the inside, or what the Army calls “behind the fence,” military slang for classified operations, the methods and tactics were already in place.

Military Strategy Dominates

“Force protection,” the military’s approach to protecting its bases and garrisons throughout the world, and “homeland defense,” a long-standing program for the overall protection of the U.S. mainland against terrorism, became the broad, strategic approach. Both programs were operating prior to 9/11. Additionally, military intelligence, a decision-making specialization that steers the collection, analysis, safeguarding and flow of information, was used to weave a web among the many institutions involved in protecting the homeland. Meanwhile, civilian-based emergency management systems in place long before 9/11 continued to guide everyday planning activity at the state and local levels.

Disaster expert and sociologist Kathleen Tierney describes this relationship as the top-down “command and control” model winning out over the “horizontal community preparedness” model in a conflict that has been repeated throughout the history of U.S. civil defense. In short, DOD’s “domestic preparedness program,” in place since the late 1990s, would lead to the enhancement of the homeland security apparatus. At the same time, the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) was created, leading to more top-down “command authority” within U.S. territory. Finally, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 officially established DHS through the merging of twenty-two separate federal agencies and mandated a comprehensive strategy to secure the nation’s critical infrastructure.

As a former Army officer and DHS antiterrorism analyst who has worked closely with these systems, I see the threat of terrorism as real and the deployment of defensive systems as necessary. The problem is how these systems are used and to what societal benefit. Within antiterrorism planning circles, the assessment of urban “risk” and “vulnerability” is deemed of utmost importance for urban security. At the heart of this process is the systematic evaluation of infrastructure by federal planners working in the bowels of the security apparatus in Washington, D.C.

With some innovative exceptions, the planning focus of the federal security planners is almost exclusively on conducting vulnerability assessments, which leads to the development of rank-order listings of “critical” facilities. The resulting “criticality” ratings that drive federal funding for our cities generally involves limited examination of infrastructure, often without field-based inspection and devoid of an integrated methodology that accounts for both the built and human/social environments. The alarming evidence presented by Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans, for example, renders this “criticality” approach questionable at best.

Standing Guard over the City

In an attempt to thwart would-be terrorists, highly classified security networks using electronic mapping, airborne imagery, cutting-edge communication technologies, human forms of intelligence and electronic monitoring are now deployed in U.S. cities. These networks operate twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Other more visible examples of fortification and surveillance in urban space include the retrofitting of bridges, tunnels, highways and transit lines; the construction of bollards, barriers and fences to protect buildings; and the extensive use of undercover policing.

In cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, homeland security initiatives focus on infrastructure that connects to, or is geographically located in, central business districts. Government facilities, especially in the Washington capital area, as well as regional hubs such as Denver, Philadelphia and Atlanta, are given top priority. Jon Coafee brought attention to this issue in his 2003 book, Terrorism, Risk and the City, which examines the “ring of steel,” a term that describes the security and surveillance systems in use within the zone surrounding the financial district in London, commonly known as “the City.” In 2004, a special collection, Cities, War, and Terrorism, edited by the British geographer Stephen Graham, examined the intersection of homeland security, cities and geopolitics. Very little practical analysis, however, has been put forth to determine how city planning has been integrated with existing institutional approaches to urban security. Investigating this question and documenting evidence of the military-security nexus embedded within federal plans and operations can reveal ways in which planning, policy and governance have been synthesized through homeland security programs.
London’s game plan has been picked up by New York, put into action through its Lower Manhattan Security Initiative (LMSI). With particular emphasis around Wall Street, the LMSI plans to add over 3,000 security cameras to the permanent and semi-permanent checkpoints manned by police and National Guard soldiers. Antiterrorism measures employed in these areas include the narrowing of roads entering the city and the use of tight sequences of S-shaped curves, which require drivers to slow down, thereby enabling high-resolution, closed-circuit cameras to capture their license plates and faces. Entry points into business districts, pedestrian zones and subway stations now also have concrete medians with checkpoints and armed guards.

The overarching strategy behind these initiatives can be found in planning and policy documents such as the National Strategy for Homeland Security, The National Strategy for the Protection of Critical Infrastructures and Key Assets, the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI), the National Incident Management System (NIMS), the National Intelligence Strategy and the National Infrastructure Protection Plan.These documents provide a snapshot of how military-oriented intelligence systems work in U.S. cities, employing state-of-the-art secure “fusion centers” with cutting-edge computer and communications equipment. These hubs are veritable copycats of the military’s “tactical operations centers,” which can be thought of as coordinating units that integrate a “full spectrum” of operations. A clear example of this approach is the National Counterterrorism Center, a secure facility in Northern Virginia that “fuses” intelligence through its “networked security approach.”

We can see this web in action within the institutional landscape of urban security. For example, in August of 2005, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) awarded a $212 million contract to Lockheed, one of the nation’s largest defense firms. At the time, this was the largest antiterrorism program awarded since 9/11. This has been coupled with the retooling of the New York Police Department’s longstanding CompStat program for antiterrorism purposes, recently promoted by the Department of Justice as a national model. Likewise, in Los Angeles, Police Chief William Bratton, a former New York City police commissioner and one of the driving forces behind the implementation of CompStat, has initiated an almost identical strategy through “Operation Archangel.”

The integration of these national intelligence systems with local law enforcement depends on the literal replication of what the military refers to as “tactics, techniques and procedures.” For example, the National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP) promotes DHS’ Infrastructure and Critical Asset Viewer, or “iCAV,” as a tool to leverage existing geospatial capabilities and technology used by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). NGA is a member of the U.S Intelligence Community, a federation of executive branch entities that conduct intelligence activities, and many refer of it as a “spy agency.” The iCAV replicates NGA’s “Palenterra” mapping tool.

As the NIPP clearly states, the iCAV serves as a key link between the military, DHS and U.S. cities for the mapping, analysis and sorting of critical infrastructure and other key resources through a growing “National Threat Incident Database.” The emergence of this planning tool involves extensive military-civil integration and the bending of federal statutes. By law, NGA’s original authorization prevents data sharing with state and local government agencies. To circumvent this problem, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) created a memorandum of understanding to establish data sharing agreements with state and local governments. For example, the 133 Cities Project, created by pre-9/11 federal legislation, was reworked to apply its geospatial intelligence mission via a partnership between DOD, DHS and the USGS known as Project Homeland. Bucking its usual role as a provider of combat support to traditional military applications outside of the continental U.S., the creation of NORTHCOM has enabled NGA, thus the U.S. state, to extend its unique, powerful and potentially dangerous capabilities to the defense of cities.


(NGA 2006)

A key player for Project Homeland is NGA’s new “Office of the Americas,” activated the day after 9/11. Through the use of these newly established policy mechanisms, federal and municipal governments and their corporate partners have established a highly coordinated means of connecting the organizations and institutions involved with antiterrorism at all levels of governance.

We should be concerned about the application of these methods within the urban environment—a complex and adaptive system that cannot be approached and defended in the same way as an Army garrison. Serious questions also remain about whether the conflation of intelligence planning (terrorism-focused defensive security merged with urban police agencies) and disaster planning (all hazards-oriented command and control systems merged with local emergency management agencies) has improved the ability of government to actually provide security.

Furthermore, along with direct collaboration between the Army, DHS and urban police departments throughout the country, the development of these systems also includes the extensive involvement of military contracting giants such as Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, SAIC, Titan, Booz Allen and Raytheon, just to name a few. Compounding this problem, most infrastructure protection projects are designed and carried out by federal contractors who have limited knowledge of urban planning and governance. Although federal plans clearly describe effective implementation of homeland security programs as dependent on extensive stakeholder coordination, the actual involvement of local residents in the planning process itself has been extremely limited. Communities and their neighborhoods are typically left out of ongoing participation in the development of security and mitigation plans, possibly leading to a further intensification of existing disparities and socio-economic stress.

Rational Planning Resurrected

As private security firms make millions at home from homeland security, business booms abroad as the drumbeat of war goes on. Economic conscription provides the human support for our “volunteer” military, supposedly fighting Al-Qaeda in the streets of Baghdad so the streets of America can remain safe. Meanwhile, the public’s right-to-know federal homeland security policies are constrained by the federal government’s recurring claim that key information is “government sensitive” due to national security concerns.

While claiming to “secure” everyday life in the city, urban security systems clearly intrude upon the would-be privacy of people. We must ask ourselves how effective these systems can be, and if they are worth both the financial and societal expense. If integrated intelligence systems in Iraq cannot stop the destructive effect of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), how can we expect them to work at home?

The reality is that the primary threat to U.S. national security may extend well beyond the threat of terrorism. This possibility is evidenced in the destruction of New Orleans, the threat posed by the avian flu virus, the human and geopolitical crises in Afghanistan and Iraq and the ongoing but seemingly hidden decline of our cities. As Jennifer Light points out in her seminal book From Warfare to Welfare, despite the fact that professionals experienced in both military operations and urban analysis have publicly stated that managing cities is more challenging, framing the urban crisis as a national security crisis is a hard argument to sell. Moreover, as Susan Clarke and Erika Chenoweth point out in their excellent 2006 article, The Politics of Vulnerability: Constructing Local Performance Regimes for Homeland Security, the National League of Cities found that homeland security was a low-ranking priority for urban policy.

Federal guidance to mitigate potential threats from terrorism (as well as natural or technological disasters) is almost exclusively limited to the built environment. Very few professionals working within the realm of defense and security have been academically and professionally trained in urban studies. As a result, our understanding of the impact of military systems and antiterrorism policies in cities has been hampered, resulting in a gap for both practitioners and scholars. Thus, urban security plans tend to focus almost exclusively on the tenets of physical protection and general emergency preparedness rather than the broader notion of societal security, a term associated with a cooperative, participatory approach to communities and their citizens.

By adopting the rational-deductive order of military doctrine, today’s urban security strategies appear to be disconnected from urban disaster preparedness systems designed to protect and respond to community crises. This stands at odds with the human-centric concerns that drive our collective activities, whether as city planners, policymakers, academics, community workers, disaster planners, activists or citizens. As planners, we are able to understand how the geographical and institutional impacts of the post-9/11 “terrain of security” are changing the city. Antiterrorism pioneer John Sullivan, a lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, has noted howgeosocial intelligence” can provide a means for security planners to account for the full range of social systems at work in our urban areas, including psychological factors that impact daily operations. These more inclusive analyses would enable today’s terrorism-centric frameworks to be improved, with a focus on pre-incident community-based preparedness.

A Call to Action for Planners

Since 9/11, many planners now find themselves working within the expanding field of hazard mitigation and emergency management. As such, we must formally address the need for practitioners and teachers who have expertise in military operations and homeland security planning. Charting the terrain of urban security requires their insight, as we must improve our understanding of how the military sphere intersects with civilian institutions in our communities. This is controversial among progressive planners. Doing so, however, will enable new means of critically investigating the emerging gap between community development and urban security and provide valuable insight into more inclusive and progressive initiatives in the future.

More broadly, planners must work collectively with decision-makers to determine how governmental security is setting the agenda for local practitioners and communities, how governance and planning are affected by federal security policy and how to foster a more equitable framework for implementation in our communities. One way to accomplish this is to force our way into the security planning process by participating in an Urban Area Working Group. By federal regulation, every metropolitan area in the U.S. now maintains these regional entities. Similar to Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) in both organization and purpose, and funded by the Department of Homeland Security, these working groups allocate financial resources and set priorities for community preparedness.

There are many ways to secure a city, based on at least three main kinds of vulnerability: physical, social and human. As disaster expert Mark Pelling explains inThe Vulnerability of Cities, physical vulnerability refers to exposure in the built environment. Societal vulnerability, on the other hand, is concerned with exposure experienced by people and their social, economic and political systems, while human vulnerability addresses the combination of physical and societal exposure. With this as a starting point, we can develop a better understanding of the geographical and organizational dynamics of security governance. Doing so can assist with future community-based efforts in cities where federal security strategies operate, and provide findings that will enhance our approaches to contemporary debates on how to best provide urban security
As this debate continues we must remember that despite today’s ongoing political rhetoric, communities can never be truly protected. This means that we can fight for the abandonment of the current urban fortification strategy, which is unevenly oriented towards protecting economic lifelines, and for a more holistic approach. Understanding how military and security technologies operate is one important step towards establishing a more equitable and realistic planning process for the security of our cities. Take heed planners, and take aggressive action to make positive change through your unique and powerful form of counterintelligence.

Matt Hidek (mahidek(at)maxwell(dot)syr(dot)edu) is a former U.S. Army Officer and federal antiterrorism analyst. He holds a M.S. in Community and Regional Planning from Temple University. Hidek is currently a PhD. candidate in social science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

The author thanks Brian Conroy, Nancy Hiemstra, Mark Monmonier and the Progressive Planning editors for their valuable comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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