Daniel Oates spent 21 years as a member of the New York Police Department. He was sworn in as Ann Arbor”s police chief less than a month before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. During his tenure with the NYPD, Oates served as a patrol officer, as head of its law division, as head of its intelligence division, and as an adviser to the police commissioner.
At age 23, he was working as an editorial production assistant with Popular Mechanics magazine when he heard an advertisement on the radio for job openings with the NYPD. After working as a reporter in Atlantic City, N.J., he was unhappy with not being able to write articles at Popular Mechanics. He soon applied for the police job, put aside his ambitions of becoming a lawyer and entered the police academy. He later got a law degree from The New York Law School.
The Michigan Daily: How did you move into intelligence work?
Daniel Oates: Well that was years later. By that point I was a mid- to senior-level executive in the department and the intelligence job was one of the really prestigious, big-time jobs in the police department and I was given that job because the new police commissioner thought that I could make major and productive change in the place.
TMD: Given what happened on 9/11, would you have liked to have been working on this case now as intelligence chief?
DO: I think the hardest thing for me would have been to be in the NYPD and not be the head of intelligence when this happened. The last because I would have felt that I could have added so much to this, and what happened was the last six months of my career in the NYPD I was on patrol. So it”s been tough to sort of sit on the sidelines but, by the same token, the kind of education and experience I got in this arena was very helpful as a leader here in Ann Arbor in the aftermath of September 11.
TMD: What would your role have been if you were in place to deal with that (as the NYPD Intelligence Division head)?
DO: Well, as the head of intelligence, I was the principal security officer for the city. It was my job to assess threats and make recommendations to the police commissioner on how to deploy people to protect against any threats, including individual threats to police officers or to the mayor or big-time threats to the entire city. And there are many, many threats that we used to average somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 to 1,500 threats a year of various kinds in New York City.
And I was the person who had to assess all of them and I also had to do the primary security planning for any major events in New York, including the largest gathering of world leaders in history, was the U.N. Millenium Summit which was last year, last September. Any number of major events 40 presidential visits while I was there, three Yankees” victory parades I mean all these big events where there were millions of people potentially affected.
TMD: When you get these threats, how do you find out whether a threat is credible or not?
DO: Well, it depends on the source of the threat, it depends on whose threat, and it depends on the very language and the form of the threat itself. I mean it depends on any number of things. You do what in the business is called a threat assessment. It depends on all of those things.
In the case of the “terrorist threats,” depending upon the source, the ones you worry about the most are the ones you”ve heard about from your friends in federal law enforcement because you knew that those threats, the information came from the U.S. government”s intelligence assets. The other kinds of threats that we got where we”d get something in the mail, or we”d get a suspicious phone call, you know a 911 hangup phone call from some anonymous person during my four years those were of much less concern than the threats that I would hear about form a source in the federal law enforcement community. Those are the ones you”re really worried about and we would get a number of those every year.
TMD: You”ve spent some time talking to people on Capitol Hill about the role of local intelligence authorities. Can you talk about what you did there, when you were on Capitol Hill, and computer comparison statistics what success you may have had?
DO: Well, I was deeply affected by September 11. I consider New York my city, my home, sort of the center of my world for my entire life, the place where I worked professionally for 21 years and where I learned this business of law enforcement. And New York has been devastated by this event. I also lost some friends in the incident and I feel personal great anguish over what happened September 11. If you don”t know New York, if you haven”t been there, you can”t fathom the destruction, and not just physically to lower Manhattan, but to the whole.
New York City was in the midst of this vibrant renaissance that people who know the city marveled at and all of that has been taken from New York: 100,000 jobs lost, the economy is in deep, deep trouble, they”re talking about a $4 billion budget deficit next year and a $34 billion total city budget. The city is in desperate, desperate shape as a result of this event. And I”m extremely angry about it. The role of government is to do everything it can to prevent something like this from happening. And so I question whether or not we in government could”ve done more.
I was interviewed on national TV a couple days after this happened saying that there was no question, no one can dispute that this was a colossal failure of intelligence and New York City is paying the price for the federal government”s intelligence failure and any of the agencies that have a role in collecting and analyzing intelligence have a responsibility here for what happened. We in local law enforcement are routinely held to task for our failures. I think much less so for federal law enforcement agencies. And at some point, I think, the media and/or the Congress is going to start to ask some hard questions about why what happened on September 11 happened and those questions have to be asked if the federal agencies that were involved are going to get better. And some of that is happening right now.
I also had, in the four years that I ran the Intelligence Division, I had some rather unpleasant experiences, in particular with the FBI not sharing intelligence. If one of the things that comes out of this is that the FBI does a better job of sharing what it has and what it knows with local enforcement, so that local law enforcement can make decisions to better protect itself, protect its citizens. That would be a good thing.
The other lesson that we have to learn out of September 11 is that the FBI, which is an agency of 11,000 or 12,000 agents, can”t do it all, that there are 650,000 police officers in this country who could help. And I believe that the culture of the FBI is such that it fails to use the potential of local law enforcement to assist in investigations. Now, I”m not the only one saying that. A lot of people have been saying that since September 11 and there appears to be some serious movement in this area. Congress is talking about these kinds of issues, and I believe the FBI director (Robert Mueller) and attorney general (John Ashcroft) are recognizing that there is a groundswell of support for change among police chiefs across this country. And my hope is that there will be some real positive change that comes out of September 11.
But it”s in that spirit that, hoping that there might be change, that I was afforded an opportunity to go to Capitol Hill, and I went there for a day and I talked to a bunch of influential people to express my concerns about the world as it existed with regard to intelligence sharing in the federal government prior to September 11.
TMD: When you dealt with the FBI, what exactly was their reasoning for not sharing information with local authorities?
DO: The FBI typically cites a couple things and I can tell you what they are. First, they say, there”s the issue of security clearances, that so much of the information they traffic in is classified. I maintain that that reasoning is a false one. The simple answer to the security clearance issue is to hand out more security clearances. There”s no reason why the FBI can”t hand out thousands and thousands of security clearances to local law enforcement.
For instance, the whole time in New York that I was head of intelligence, I had a security clearance from the Secret Service. I had a security clearance from the U.S. State Department. It”s the same background investigation. All the FBI had to do was honor that security clearance and I would”ve been cleared in and they wouldn”t do it.
So there had to be some other reason motivating them for that. It”s not about whether or not one police chief has security clearance, they should hand out thousands of security clearances. Probably 10 people in my agency, right here in Ann Arbor, should have a security clearance today. Not only should they have a clearance, they should be briefed in. They should know what is going on in southeast Michigan with regard to this investigation so that if they run into something here that crosses their desk, they know enough about the investigation to make a connection and help the FBI. Help the FBI that”s the operative word here. We can help!
And the culture of the FBI, prior to September 11, I believe, based on four years of dealing with them, was that we were of no help, we were nothing but trouble, therefore don”t work with us. I think that”s now changing.
By the way, with regard to security clearances, the problem is that the U.S. government classifies everything as secret. And so much of it shouldn”t be classified. But if you”re going to classify it, then hand out security clearances. And there”s no reason right now, with New York City under attack, and with so many leads coming out of New York right now, there”s no reason why hundreds and hundreds of New York City detectives patriotic cops for which there are complete background investigations in their personnel files in New York, there”s no reason why hundreds of New York City detectives shouldn”t be granted security clearances overnight, be totally briefed in on the investigation and let loose on the streets of New York to run down leads.
Instead, they have FBI agents flown in from out of town, who are not street-savvy New Yorkers, trying to conduct these investigations in New York and running down leads. It”s crazy, it”s madness. No FBI agent is ever going to know a town better than the local investigators, the local cops. So use the cops that”s my argument.
The other argument that the FBI has to the kind of broad sharing of intelligence that police chiefs like me are arguing for now is that there already exists the mechanism to do that and that is this notion of joint terrorism task forces. For all the major urban areas in this country there is a joint terrorism task force. So, for instance, there”s one in Detroit, there was one in New York. The New York one was the biggest one in the country. The problem with that model is that it”s been proven that although it”s a good model for investigating events after they happen, it”s been proven it”s not a good model to protect us from terrorism before it occurs.
Their definition within the agency of “need to know” is so compartmentalized that the people within the JTTF don”t know anything, that when they run out to do investigations and they run down leads, they”re not even briefed in themselves. I often knew more about a threat, without the security clearance, and without being part of the JTTF, but because I had friends elsewhere in the federal government in law enforcement because I got more information than the FBI gives its own people.
All the strategic decisions in the JTTF in New York were made by senior FBI agents. There was no effort to embrace local law enforcement when it came to deployment of resources.
What buttons you push to get information out on the street. That”s about being street savvy cops, and FBI agents just don”t have that kind of experience.
The common-denominator FBI agent it doesn”t have the same experience that a New York City detective has when it comes to getting information on the street. Key decision makers on the deployment and the use of the JTTF as a counter-terrorism tool were all FBI agents who grew up in an insular environment and didn”t have the broad knowledge of the streets of New York that the people I worked with in the NYPD did.
TMD: Do you think that the FBI is, essentially, an arrogant organization?
DO: I”m not going to use that word. There”s no point in using that word. I know it”s a common criticism among police chiefs that among the words we used to describe the FBI prior to September 11 was “elitist.”
TMD: How much of a concern would the FBI have if they gave information to local authorities?
DO: Our great commanders of this country have won wars by taking risks. I don”t think it”s that much of a risk to entrust local police commanders across this country and their top investigators with critical information. And to violate the laws on revealing classified information involves serious sanctions on the federal law. So terrorize us! That”s what they do. That”s what happens when you become a police officer working in one of these joint terrorist task forces is they terrorize you about leaking information and all of these evil things that are going to happen to you. Fine! I”ll take the same rules if you give me the same information. At least I can have it, I can act on it, and I can contribute to the fight.
TMD: In The New York Times on Nov. 5 you talked about the COMPSTAT program (short for “computer comparison statistics”) and sounded really excited about it. You think it”s really effective. Can you talk a little about that and why you think it”s so effective in reducing crime?
DO: Crime is down in New York City nearly 70 percent in nearly every major category since 1993. (under COMPSTAT) You get everyone in the room that”s a player, a stakeholder in the effort to reduce crime for a given area and you make them work together. And you make them share information and collectively solve problems.
The way you do it is you have the precinct commander and his counterpart, who is the investigative commander for the precinct”s detectives squad, stand up at a podium with all their support people and answer questions: What are you doing about that homicide that occurred last week or last month? What are you doing to find the people? What are you doing about that grand larceny auto pattern in that corner of the precinct? And who in this room can provide you any help with regard to that.
Essentially, September 11 is a big investigation, probably the biggest criminal investigation in U.S. history. But it”s basically a criminal investigation. So you get everybody in the room who could possibly contribute to solving that case. And obviously we also think logically that if you can solve September 11 you can prevent further September 11s. If you can get at the network that caused September 11 then you can prevent further events like that. You get everybody in a room once a month (or) once every two weeks, and you have the FBI director, the police commissioner for the city of New York, whoever the head of the FAA is whoever the stakeholders are in September 11 get them in a room and you start firing questions at your own people. Take the people who are responsible for that investigation and ask questions of them and you send all kind of wonderful messages about cooperation, about productivity, about not tolerating failure and that”s all you”ve got to do. The framework exists and it can have magical results. It has had magical results in New York.
TMD: We heard you a got phone call from the FBI director, Robert Mueller. Would you like to talk about that?
DO: He called me on Friday to talk about my op-ed piece, he was very cordial, said some very nice things, you know, “I appreciate the information, you”re not the only one who”s made these points.”
He seemed fairly receptive and I do sense that he”s trying very hard to make change. He mentioned, I don”t remember her name, but he mentioned some woman with a police background that he had hired onto the senior staff. One of my recommendations has been that the way to change the culture of the FBI is to start at the top by bringing some career police officers into the agency as senior managers. Another way is to bring people in at the bottom it”s to have new agents spend a lot of time with cops, probably as part of a field training effort. I think new agents should spend two months in the New York City detective”s squad, or Chicago detective”s squad or even the Ann Arbor Police Department Detective Unit seeing how local cops conduct business.
TMD: But if this is going to get done, who”s really going to lead the charge?
DO: It”s got to be Mueller. I don”t think it matters whether (Director of Homeland Security) Tom Ridge ultimately ends up with authority over the FBI. Right now he doesn”t have any statutory authority. Whether he ultimately ends up with it or not, the person who”s going to change the FBI is the director. Congress can do oversight hearings and I predict that eventually Congress will eventually hold hearings to ask the question, “What did the FBI know and what did other federal intelligence agencies know and when did they know it, about September 11. Eventually there”s going to be hearings on that.
But the entity that is needed to change that organization is the director and I think there”s some interesting stuff going on there. The number two guy in the FBI (Deputy Director Thomas Pickard) retired two weeks ago in the middle of this crisis the number two guy at the FBI retired two weeks ago. That doesn”t sound like something that would ordinarily happen. It would probably suggest there was some internal tensions there as a result of September 11 and the demands the new director has been putting on people.