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The Lesson of the Imam

March 8, 2010

Queens Imam Ahmad Wais Afzali admitted last week that he had tipped off a terrorism suspect planning to set off explosives in the subways, telling him that the authorities were watching him.

Afzali’s guilty plea was structured to skirt any link to terrorism. Afzali maintained he didn’t realize that the suspect, Najibullah Zazi, was planning to bomb the subways, and admitted only to lying to federal officials about his conversation with him.

Missing from news accounts of Afzali’s plea was any reference to the NYPD’s near-fatal bungling of the case, considered by law enforcement officials as the most serious terrorism threat to New York since 9/11.

Due to the public relations skills of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and his spokesman Paul Browne, not one news report mentioned that the FBI’s investigation of Zazi’s subway plot was compromised, if not nearly destroyed, by the NYPD’s Intelligence Division.

For the past nine years we have heard Kelly, Browne and NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen say that New York City must act unilaterally to protect itself from terrorism because it cannot rely on the FBI.

We have also heard ad nauseum about NYPD detectives permanently stationed overseas to fight terrorism; about other Intelligence detectives quickly dispatched to overseas bombings; and about the speed with which these detectives relay terrorism intelligence back home, beating the FBI.

Last September, Cohen’s Intelligence Division again decided to go it alone. While the FBI was tracking Zazi as he drove from Colorado to New York to carry out his subway plot, Intel detectives, apparently without informing the FBI, contacted Imam Afzali.

We now reprint a portion of a Justice Department affidavit of Sept. 20, 2009, that spells out what happened.

“On Sept. 10, 2009, detectives from the New York City Police Department [NYPD] met with the defendant [Imam] Ahmad Wais Afzali, whom the NYPD has utilized as a source for information in the past. During the Sept. 10th meeting, detectives met with Afzali to obtain information about Individual A [Zazi] and others. Among other things, detectives showed Afzali photographs of Individual A and others. Afzali told detectives that he recognized several of the men, including Individual A.

“On or about Sept 11, 2009, pursuant to legally-authorized electronic surveillance, FBI agents intercepted a telephone conversation between Individual A [Zazi] and Individual A’s father. During the conversation, the father advised Individual A that the defendant Ahmad Wais Afzali called him and told him that “they” had showed Afzali photographs of Individual A and others, including individuals identified herein as Individual B and Individual C. During the conversation, the father told Individual A that he should speak with Afzali as soon as possible.

“In the midst of this phone call, Individual A received a call from the defendant Ahmad Wais Afzali on the other line. Individual A ended the call with his father and began speaking with Afzali.

“According to a draft summary transcription, Afzali and Individual A discussed the following things, in English.

“Afzali told Individual A that he had just spoken to Individual A’s father. … Afzali then asked Individual A for telephone numbers for Individual B and Individual C. Afzali then stated: ‘I want to speak with you about something. I want a meeting with you and three others, [including] Individual B and Individual C. … I was exposed to something yesterday from the authorities. And they came to ask me about your characters. They asked me about you guys.”

The next day, Sept. 12th, Zazi cut short his trip to New York and flew back to Colorado. The FBI arrested him shortly afterwards. He subsequently pleaded guilty to the subway plot. Two others, Adis Medunjanin and Zarein Ahmedzay, have also been arrested in connection with the plot.

Despite the NYPD’s blunder, FBI Director Robert Mueller publicly praised the department in a misguided display of law enforcement unity.

Leonard Levitt's new book, NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country's Greatest Police Force, will be out in stores July 21. Preorder it today by clicking on the book at right.

President Obama also telephoned the department with congratulations, a call that Browne trumpeted to the media.

And the department’s outside public relations arm, the editorial page of the Daily News, criticized those who questioned the NYPD’s actions in the case.

In its understated way, the NYPD did acknowledge its mistake.

Although the decision to contact Imam Afzali appeared to have been made at the highest levels of the department — i.e., between Kelly and Cohen —a mid-level deputy inspector, Paul Ciorra, was quietly transferred.

At first Ciorra’s transfer was to the lowly Trials Division, an obvious demotion in terms of responsibility.

When accounts in this column and subsequently in the Times suggested the department was making him a scapegoat, he was reassigned to Commanding Officer of the Highway Patrol.

With all eyes riveted on Albany and Gov. Paterson, let’s not lose sight of recent allegations of scandal at the NYPD.

BulletPolice Officer Adrian Schoolcraft accused commanders in the 81st precinct in Brooklyn of fudging crime statistics. In retaliation, commanders helped get him committed to Jamaica’s Hospital’s psychiatric ward.

BulletPBA delegate Frank Palestro claimed supervisors were downgrading crimes at the 42nd precinct in the Bronx.

BulletDitto police officer Adil Polanco, who made similar claims about his bosses in the 41st precinct.

BulletAt the same time, two professors published a study, charging that retired captains felt pressure from higher-ups to downgrade felonies to misdemeanors.

BulletThen, there is the 9ll call from the girlfriend of the governor’s closest aide, David Johnson, claiming that he was choking her and had stolen her cell phone. Responding police officers charged Johnson with “aggravated harassment,” a misdemeanor rather than a felony, and did not arrest him. The line out of Police Plaza was that the cops saw no bruises on the victim to justify a felony charge.

This is not the first time that claims of downgrading crimes have been leveled.

Five years ago the presidents of the patrolmen’s and sergeants’ unions held a joint press conference to state that commanders were forcing their members to downgrade crimes. Afterwards , Kelly refused to turn over precinct reports to the Mayor’s Commission to Combat Police Corruption, causing its chairman to resign.

If all these recent allegations are not enough to justify an outside investigation into how the NYPD tabulates its crime statistics, then what is?

No one regrets Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman’s decision not to run for the U.S. Senate more than Your Humble Servant. Unless Mort decides to come clean on his own, New Yorkers may never learn who had been tailing him back in 2004 or why. Nor will we discover how Mort persuaded Deputy Commissioner David Cohen to dispatch Intelligence Division detectives — on the tax-payer’s dime — to conduct what was in effect a private investigation for the billionaire publisher, only to learn that his pursuers were not terrorists.

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Copyright © 2010 Leonard Levitt