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Secret Spook About to Vanish

January 24, 2011

The Police Department’s Assistant Spook in Residence is departing.

His shadowy presence at the NYPD for the past six years has been so secretive that, outside of a few top officials, no one knows who is he is or what he does.

His name is Laurence H. Sanchez. The department’s roster lists him as Assistant Commissioner in the Intelligence Division, just below fellow former spook, Deputy Commissioner David Cohen.

Spook is shorthand for CIA. Like Cohen, Sanchez worked there, starting in 1984. In 2004 he joined the NYPD.

Whether he formally left the CIA is another question. Check out the vertical website “zoominfo.” There, he is listed as a “CIA liaison to the NYPD.”

What exactly was his job at the police department?

Christopher Dickey wrote in Newsweek in 2009 that “Sanchez was able to keep Cohen abreast of anything and everything the CIA learned abroad, including whatever information about New York might be spilled by prisoners interrogated at the agency’s ‘black sites.’”

So who is Sanchez? His bona fides are formidable. He has a degree in geophysics with a minor in Russian from the University of Montana. He is a power-lifter, boxing titlist and a master-qualified scuba diver. He speaks Russian and Portuguese and is an expert in nuclear proliferation.

At the CIA, he served as an assistant to its Executive Director. He spent four years in its Non-Proliferation Center and a year as a deputy team chief for nuclear forces inspections in the former Soviet Union. In 1998, he was seconded to the Energy Department as its Director of Intelligence.

He did not return phone messages to his NYPD office at the Chelsea redoubt where he is still said to work.

A former top NYPD official described him as “an American patriot.”

Working with Cohen, he is said to have played a key role in expanding the NYPD’s Intelligence Division.

Sanchez, said the official, helped develop “an effective expanded Intelligence Division within constitutional boundaries. He came from that world and provided expert guidance and suggestions. He well understood the domestic threat and the idea that any intelligence program had to operate within the boundaries of the Constitution. He knew the area he was in. It didn’t need to be explained to him.”

But this description of the Intelligence Division belies what others say: that it has become a mini-CIA, operating under no restraints whatsoever.

In fact, another former top police official described the Intelligence Division to this reporter two years ago as a “mini-CIA within a municipal agency without the safeguards to ensure that it does not break the law.”

He added: “What mechanisms are in place to ensure that the NYPD does not become a rogue organization?”

If there are such safeguards, Police Commissioner Kelly has never spelled them out to the public.

In fact, Kelly has run the Intelligence Division for the past ten years without civilian oversight and public accountability.

And Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whether out of ignorance, design, or fear of Kelly, has abdicated his mayoral responsibility to monitor the NYPD and the police commissioner.

Sanchez’s own words have added to the perception that the Intelligence Division has no safeguards.

Before the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security in 2007 — as reported by Dickey on pages 236-239 of his book, “Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counter-Terrorism Force” — Sanchez testified that “rather than just protecting New York City citizens from terrorists, the NYPD believes that part of its mission is to protect New York citizens from turning into terrorists.”

Dickey adds: “In other words, the police would save Muslims from themselves.”

New York City, Sanchez testified, “has created its own methods to be able to understand them [terrorists], to be able to identify them and to be able to make judgment calls if these are things that we need to worry about.”

“The federal government doesn’t have that mission,” Sanchez added. “They’re going to have a heck of a lot harder time [to reach] a standard of criminality that you need if your prime objective is you’re going to lock them up.’”

Besides these words, there is evidence to suggest that the Intelligence Division has already gone rogue.

After the 9/ll terrorist attacks, Kelly sought to eliminate all restrictions on police surveillance mandated by the Handschu agreement, which was enacted to curb the excesses of the 1960s when police officers infiltrated radical political groups and encouraged their members to commit illegal acts.

Agreeing to Kelly’s demands, federal judge Charles Haight eliminated Handschu restrictions in early 2003, granting the NYPD virtually unlimited surveillance powers.

That spring, following two anti-Iraq war demonstrations in Manhattan, the Intelligence Division abused the freedom Judge Haight had given them.

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They asked hundreds of arrested demonstrators in their jail cells about their friends and political affiliations, threatening them with longer jail stays unless they talked. The department then entered the personal information they supplied into a data bank.

After the New York Times revealed this abuse of power, Kelly announced he would abandon the data bank.

That apparently wasn’t good enough for Haight, who publicly ridiculed Kelly’s explanations in open court. Haight then restored most Handschu strictures he had eliminated.

That summer, the Intelligence Division launched a nationwide spying operation of groups planning to protest at the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden.

When the largely peaceful demonstrators tried to assemble and protest President George Bush’s policies, the police made 1,806 arrests and held many of the demonstrators for days on the most trivial of charges. Ninety per cent were dismissed.

That NYPD’s spying operation did not surface until 2007. Then, while defending itself against law suits over its harsh treatment of those protestors, the NYPD admitted its covert spying, suggesting it had turned up information justifying its crackdown.

Notably, the NYPD did not notify the FBI of its nationwide spying, an omission that, as the Civil Liberties’ attorney Chris Dunn said, reflected the department’s disdain for the Bureau and “the NYPD’s commitment to developing its own proprietary domestic counter-terrorism intelligence program.”

By 2008, Kelly was so emboldened that he engineered a public dustup with the U.S. Attorney General over how far the NYPD could go to wiretap civilians.

Angry letters between Kelly and then Attorney General Michael Mukasey began when the police commissioner accused the Justice Department of hindering “international terrorism investigations in the New York area” that focused on “high priority suspects.”

Kelly accused the federal government of doing “less than it is lawfully entitled to do to protect New York City” by denying the NYPD’s requests for wiretap warrants from the special Foreign Surveillance Court to monitor terrorism suspects.

Mukasey wrote back that Kelly’s views were “contrary to the law.”

Kelly’s approach, said Dunn at the time, combined with the NYPD’s “aversion to working with the FBI and its history of surveillance excesses leaves one to wonder about the extent to which the department is engaging in domestic electric surveillance entirely outside the FISA process and without the knowledge of federal authorities.”

Most disturbing, the NYPD’s overstepping nearly wrecked the investigation into the most serious terrorism threat against the city since 9/ll — the plot by Najibullah Zazi, who drove to New York from Colorado, to plant bombs in the subway.

While the FBI, together with the NYPD’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, were tracking Zazi’s movements, the Intelligence Division, disregarding protocol and common sense, secretly showed his picture to its own informant, a Queens imam, Ahmad Wais Afzali.

The imam then alerted Zazi and his father Mohammed of the NYPD’s interest. Najibullah Zazi then cut short his plans and returned to Colorado, short-circuiting the FBI’s investigation.

The FBI only learned of Intel’s meddling through phone taps on Mohammed Zazi, picking up a call from the imam, warning of the NYPD’s visit.

The Bureau was forced to scramble and prematurely arrest Najibullah Zazi before learning the full extent of his plot.

Did Sanchez have anything to do with Intel’s decision to contact the imam? Or on the nationwide spying operation? Or on the wiretapping of civilians?

Who knows?

In publicizing the FBI’s historic takedown of 128 mobsters in New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island last week, FBI spokesman Rich Kolko exercised uncharacteristic restraint. Unlike his New Year’s eve press release, where he quoted himself, Kolko’s press release about the massive bust quoted special agent in charge of the Bureau’s Criminal Division, Diego Rodriquez.

This was a big media event and Agent Rich took some credit for it. La Cosa Nostra takedowns, though not what they were, remain bread and butter stories for reporters. In addition, this takedown was unprecedented in size and scope, and featured the appearance of Attorney General Eric Holder, who journeyed up from Washington to Brooklyn to announce the charges.

Kolko maintained to colleagues that were it not for his heads up to reporters — [without first okaying the timing with Justice Department officials in Washington] — there wouldn’t have been as much interest.

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Copyright © 2011 Leonard Levitt