NEW YORK — Was it someone’s idea of art, or an attempt to send a political message?
Perhaps, as one police official mused, Betsy Ross’ long-lost nephew was channeling his flag-making aunt with his own creation: two white flags, which early Tuesday mysteriously replaced the American flags flying atop the Brooklyn Bridge.
Whatever was behind the swap, police said there was no sign of a sinister motive such as terrorism. They played down concerns about the security breach that enabled the flag carriers to clamber atop the bridge’s two towers and switch out the Stars and Stripes.
Police stationed on either side of the East River span are “focused most clearly on areas of the bridge that are critical to its structural integrity,” said John Miller, the New York Police Department’s deputy commissioner of intelligence.
Nonetheless, the incident embarrassed law enforcement officials in a city that prides itself on tight security and anti-terrorism measures. Since the September 2001 attacks, thousands of video cameras have kept an eye on city streets. Audio messages in the subways urge riders to be vigilant, telling them, “If you see something, say something.”
Other city landmarks have been targets of security breaches, most recently the tower rising at the site of the fallen World Trade Center buildings. In March, a teenager sneaked to the top of the new building’s spire, which reaches 1,776 feet into the air. In 2013, three parachutists jumped from the building.
Miller and Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said Tuesday that they were “not happy” that someone had scaled the bridge towers, adding that they hoped surveillance cameras would help catch the offenders.
This much they do know: At 8:30 p.m. Monday, the U.S. flags were atop each of the towers, which rise majestically into the sky and provide backdrops for countless tourist photos.
At 3:10 a.m. Tuesday, video showed four or five people walking on the bridge’s pedestrian path.
Within the next half-hour, the lights that shine on each flag had gone dark.
And when the sun rose, pedestrians, tourists and construction workers doing routine work on the bridge noticed the white banners flying in the sultry summer sky.
By midday, authorities had removed the white flags and the Stars and Stripes were back. Miller said the white banners, each measuring 11 by 20 feet, would be studied for clues, along with two large aluminum pans that had been placed over the tower lights to allow the flag-swappers to work in darkness.
Close inspection of the white flags shows the faint outlines of Old Glory, indicating they were American flags that had been bleached. That enraged the Brooklyn borough president, Eric Adams, who offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the perpetrators. Adams said white flags, which usually indicate surrender, had no place on the bridge.
“The only thing or person who should be surrendering at this time is the person who’s responsible for the desecration,” Adams said.
Miller said it appeared that a significant amount of planning went into the swap.
“Perhaps they have experience climbing, or in construction or in bridge work,” he said, noting that someone would have had to scale each tower from the outside, carrying a replacement flag.
The Brooklyn Bridge has been targeted before. In 2003, Iyman Faris, a Pakistani-born U.S. citizen, pleaded guilty to plotting to destroy its support wires with blowtorches. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. And in 2011, the bridge was the scene of hundreds of arrests when Occupy Wall Street protesters tried to cross it on foot and were blocked by police.
Miller said people who climb the towers usually plan to jump from them or send a political message, not commit a criminal act.
“If there is a message in it,” he said of the latest incident, “we don’t know what that message is.”