The Watcher

By Stanton, Doug | Newsweek, April 19, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Watcher


Stanton, Doug, Newsweek


Byline: Doug Stanton

On the hunt with the FBI woman protecting New York from the next attack.

Even while she sleeps, the dangerous voices are still speaking. Someone in St. Louis reports that two men in a truck are driving to New York with a bomb. A man was seen wandering the Lincoln Tunnel. Someone posts his rage on YouTube, threatening attack. The alarm buzzes at dawn, chopping her world in two, between the knowing and not knowing. She rises into a world where her job is to know what story the city is telling.

In her Manhattan apartment, as she sits on her bed, her BlackBerry flashes. The two men in the truck have left Kansas with their bomb ... Off to the gym, home to shower, up come the blue dress trousers, on with the white blouse and blazer. On comes the cracked leather belt, her holstered Glock. She swings a leg over the seat of her Vespa, drops a helmet over her shoulder-length brown hair, and pilots into the stream, into the story. Who are these people whose voices speak destruction?

Supervisory Special Agent Kristy Kottis and the little-known threat-response squad are part of the FBI's New York field office and its Counterterrorism Division. The New York field office is the largest of the FBI's 56 outposts nationwide, and when we imagine a standard FBI cops-and-robbers scenario, it's because we've seen, generally in TV or movies, lantern-jawed, besuited men chasing bank robbers, serial killers, white-collar fraudsters, and pedophiles.

But within the bureau, acting as a first responder to all terrorist threats to New York City, sit Kottis and her squad. And within this world, Kottis, in her early 50s, is--according to a former boss--one of its stars.

Special Agent Dan Ganci, Kottis's former second in command, says that before Kottis took over the squad in 2009, it was sometimes tasked with a lot of "hey you" details, as in, "Hey you, go deliver this vehicle downtown." Or, "Hey you, go pick up this and that."

"The squad worked terrorism-related cases," says Ganci, "but was more reactive, more interested in responding to a threat rather than heading one off."

Today the squad is the "control tower of terrorism," says Ganci.

Kottis dismisses compliments like these. Her no-nonsense, let's-roll-up-our-sleeves attitude has made her popular with the "alpha" personalities, mostly men--and mostly in their 30s--whom she manages. They have a tendency to call her "mother bear." She calls them her "cubs."

Kottis's squad room in downtown Manhattan contains about 100 desks, separated from each other by chest-high cubicle dividers. The desks are draped with body armor and rucksacks, family photos of wives and children. Down a hall sits the joint operations center, where, during events like New Year's Eve, the tennis U.S. Open, and the United Nations General Assembly, agents sit at worktables loaded with computers, while live video feeds are piped into window-size LCD screens on a front wall.

Adjacent to Kottis's office is the threat assessment center, a small, windowless room staffed round-the-clock by an agent answering phones and writing down leads from people who believe they've spotted something suspicious in the city. Their job: take every phone call, email, and fax seriously.

"We are the ER of terrorist threat," Kottis tells me, and "the light infantry of the FBI. Everything comes here first. We look for problems before they happen. We're like pre-crime. We address things that are percolating."

One of the scenarios that Kottis and the threat squad--indeed, the entire FBI--constantly prepares for is an attack at a "special event," such the New Year's Eve celebration in New York's Times Square and the Boston Marathon--places, says Kottis, that are "soft targets" with "soft borders." Kottis was sitting at her desk at 2:50 p.m. April 15 when a fellow FBI special agent working in Boston sent her an email about an explosion. …

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