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NYPD Intelligence: A Mad, Mad World

March 26, 2007

What began as the NYPD’s honest, though perhaps misguided, attempt to catch terrorists outside New York City has turned into a bizarre, perhaps illegal, monitoring of legitimate political protest groups.

As the New York Times’s Jim Dwyer reported, detectives from the NYPD’s Intelligence Division under the former CIA spook David Cohen traveled half-way round the world to monitor groups — many of which planned lawful, non-violent protests — proposing to attend the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York.

Although, the last time we checked, this still was the United States of America, Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Paul Browne was quoted as saying that such monitoring was both legal and essential.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has used Cohen and the Intelligence Division — which Kelly re-defined after 9/11 — to circumvent the FBI and local law enforcement authorities outside New York. As far back as 2003, this column reported on some of Intel’s out-of-state forays in its search for terrorists, some with comedic overtones.

That October, Intel detectives conducted a telephone sting of scuba diving shops on the New Jersey shore to test their vulnerability to terrorist bribes. When the diving shop owners alerted local authorities, New Jersey’s Director of its Office of Counter-Terrorism Sidney J. Caspersen ordered the detectives out of the state.

”On Wed., Oct. 15, 2003, it was brought to our attention,” wrote Caspersen, … [who’s now an NYPD Assistant Commissioner in Intel], that calls “regarding suspicious inquiries at four dive shops were part of a test the NYPD’s Intelligence Division was conducting . OCT was not aware that the tests were being conducted and has since informed the NYPD Intelligence Division to cease and desist all such activity in the state of New Jersey.”

Around the same time, two NYPD detectives appeared in Carlisle, PA after explosives were reported stolen there. The NYPD detectives, from the Counter Terrorism Bureau — which Kelly created in the wake of 9/11, but who in this operation were working for Cohen — appeared at the crime scene during the investigation, which was conducted by the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Pennsylvania North Middletown township police.

North Middleton township police chief Jeff Rudolph said he told the detectives that the investigation was being conducted by FBI’s Harrisburg’s senior agent Rick Etzler “and that if we needed their help we will give them a call.”

By early 2004, Intel’s search for terrorists had apparently widened to include protest groups at the upcoming Republican National Convention. That February, two Intel detectives turned up in Boston, infiltrating a church meeting of the Black Tea Society, a group planning to protest at the RNC. The Mass. State police, which had been monitoring the meeting in preparation for that summer’s Democratic National Convention in Boston, followed the Intel detectives, unaware who they were. On the Mass. Pike, they stopped the detectives for speeding and nearly arrested them.

All of us, the NYPD and citizens alike, have a stake in fighting terrorism. The question is: when do the NYPD’s actions become irrational and possibly illegal? During the first Iraq protest march in the spring of 2003, the police arrested hundreds of demonstrators. While in custody, they were asked such questions as who their friends were; where they attended school; what organizations they belonged to; what other marches they had participated in; what they thought about the Israelis and the Palestinians; what they thought about the Sept. 11 attacks; and where they had been on that day.

After the police inputted the information into a data bank and this action became public, Kelly promised to destroy the information. However, he maintained that the protestors’ “debriefing” was legal and had occurred “during the arrest process.” His description was literally laughed out of court by federal Judge Charles Haight.

Just last week, some Columbia University students were arrested after they photographed a police parking lot in Manhattan as part a project on crime. Maybe Kelly thought they were photographing one of the two luxury cars the department has leased for Counter Terrorism Deputy Commissioner Richard Falkenrath. Perhaps that made them a “security threeat.”

A year ago, Your Humble Servant was also declared a security threat and banned for a time from Police Plaza. I never learned the basis of this but some said it had to do with a Christmas column I wrote that made fun of Kelly. Whatever the reason, my mug shot was placed at the security desk on the first floor of Police Plaza, alongside those of eight true miscreants, some of whom had threatened to kill Kelly.

The Times article suggests that further revelations of bizarre NYPD monitoring of civilians will be coming. “It’s shocking,” says a former FBI agent familiar with NYPD spying operations. “But if you understand that since 2003 they have attempted to establish their own world-wide intelligence network, maybe it’s not shocking.”

The Winners.
There’s one big winner in the Sean Bell tragedy. Like it or not, it’s Al Sharpton. As an official close to the three indicted detectives put it, “The more we talk, the stronger he gets.”

Two recent statements about the case suggest that, when it comes to racial rabble-rousing, the Rev. is unbeatable. Shortly before the detectives’ indictments, Joseph Guzman, one of two men wounded with Bell in the 50-shot police barrage, said at Sharpton’s headquarters that, if only one officer were indicted, he would refuse to cooperate with prosecutors.

Last week, Sharpton said that if the detectives’ trial were moved out of the city — as was that of the four officers who shot and killed the unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo in 1999 — he, too, would not cooperate.

That’s vintage Sharpton. He used that threat against then Queens District Attorney John Santucci in1986 in the Howard Beach case, in which a black man was struck and killed by a car on the Belt Parkway as he fled a group of whites. Santucci bowed out. Special prosecutor Joe Hynes came in.

A second winner is Sanford Rubenstein, who follows Sharpton in these tragedies, as a vulture follows the smell of carrion. Rubenstein first appeared in the case of Abner Louima, who was sodomized with a broomstick by a cop in the 70th precinct. He also appeared in the case of Ousmane, Zongo, another unarmed African immigrant, fatally shot by a police officer in an undercover raid of a Chelsea warehouse.

Nearly $9 million was awarded to Louima. Three million to Zongo. Who knows how much for Sean Bell?

Last week, this column used a poor choice of words in saying that Lieut. Gary Napoli hid under the dashboard of his car during the 50-shot barrage that killed Sean Bell. A more accurate phrase is that Napoli took cover. I apologize to the lieutenant for any misapprehension.

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Copyright © 2007 Leonard Levitt