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NYPD Spying: Brilliance or Obsession?

March 5, 2012

Within 24 hours after Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle died from accidentally crashing his plane into a Manhattan high-rise in 2006, the NYPD was searching for a terrorism link.

The circumstances surrounding the fatal accident suggested a tragedy, not a terrorist attack. Lidle, 34, owned the small Cirrus plane, which smashed into the Belaire Apartments complex on York Avenue and E. 72nd Street on October 11, 2006. With him was his flight instructor, who also died.

The same fate had befallen two other Yankees in the past, most notably, Thurmon Munson, who crashed his own plane and died in 1979. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner described Lidle's death as a “terrible and shocking tragedy that has stunned the entire Yankees organization.” On October 12, 2006, before the 2006 National League Championship game in New York between the Mets and the St. Louis Cardinals, the teams and spectators observed a moment of silence to honor Lidle’s memory.

On that same day, the NYPD began its terrorism investigation.

According to an Intelligence Division document obtained by NYPD Confidential, the police had, by October 12, contacted informants and undercover detectives in at least five mosques and Islamic Centers around the city and in New Jersey to gauge the reaction at these locations to Lidle’s crash.

At the At Taqwa Mosque in Brooklyn, a confidential police informant reported on October 13, 2006, that a congregant seemed upset by news of Lidle’s accident and police moved to get a record of his phone calls.

The NYPD titled this portion of its document: “Report featuring individual who appears agitated after news of crash:”

“Upon hearing of the crash,” that report began, the “active mosque member immediately got on his cell phone. In discussions with CI about the possibility of another attack… [he] told CI he was not aware that something might happen. [He] also warned the source not to go into Manhattan that evening until it was clear what was going on … and for the remainder of the day, was observed taking and receiving numerous calls. Phone dump will be conducted on subject’s phone for that day and time period.”

If the phone dump required a warrant, no mention was made of it in this document.

The document did list two suspected terrorists. They were not at these mosques but were trained pilots. This suggests that the police might have been concerned about a copy cat incident, a terrorist mimicking the Lidle crash and launching an attack.

Police spokesman Paul Browne did not return an email about the document.

Four of those places where the police were monitoring reaction to Lidle’s plane crash appear on the department’s terrorism-related list of “Mosques of Concern,” according to another secret 2006 Intelligence Division document, “The Current Threat: Islamic Extremism,” which this column and the Associated Press reported on last fall.

Since then, the AP and this column have detailed questionable NYPD spying operations ranging from New York City to Newark to Buffalo and possibly beyond, amidst growing concerns that the New York Police Department has overstepped its bounds and possibly broken the law with its widespread anti-terrorism measures.

The NYPD’s investigation of the Cory Lidle plane crash in 2006 appears to be a forerunner of this aggressive posture.

Was the department looking for conspiracies where none existed? Or was it being creative and thinking outside the box, ensuring that Lidle’s crash would not inspire a terrorist attack?

According to the Intelligence Division document on Lidle plane crash, dated Oct. 16, 2006, a Confidential Informant noted of the Brooklyn Islamic Center on Oct. 12: “chatter among the regulars expressing relief and thanks to God that the crash was only an accident and not an act of terrorism, which they stated would not be good either for the U.S. or for any of their home countries.”

On the same day, this document, which is marked “secret” and described as an “Intelligence Note,” referred to the Al-Tawheed Islamic Center of Jersey City and stated: “UC [Undercover detective] reported that after a regular at the mosque told two worshippers of the news, the worshippers’ reaction was ‘that of sorrow.’

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These revelations of NYPD spying in Buffalo follow reports by the Associated Press that in 2007 the NYPD spied on Muslims in Newark, New Jersey, collecting the license plates of worshippers, monitoring them on surveillance cameras, and cataloging sermons through a network of informants.

In Newark, the NYPD used as its liaison then police commissioner Garry McCarthy, who was a former top NYPD commander. McCarthy told the AP that the NYPD had told him as a courtesy that it was sending plainclothes officers into Newark in 2007.

It was not clear if McCarthy knew the extent of the NYPD’s spying operation in Newark. Nor was it clear what he had told Newark Mayor Cory Booker about it.

But after learning of the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance from the AP, Booker said he had been “misled.” Together with other New Jersey officials, including U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, he called for an investigation.

In Buffalo, it was also unclear whether Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown knew about the NYPD’s Somalia Project.

Mary Murray, a spokeswoman for the Erie County Sheriff's department, said Donovan had retired and that she would attempt to contact him. She did not return a phone call about his whereabouts. NYPD Confidential could not independently reach him.

Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard did not return a call.

Michael DeGeorge, a spokesman for the Buffalo Police Department, said the department did not “discuss investigations involving other police agencies.”

DeGeorge, who also serves as Mayor Brown's $162,000-a-year spokesman, did not return a call asking if Mayor Brown knew of the NYPD’s spying on the Somalis.

The NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Paul Browne did not return an email seeking comment on the Somalia Project.

In New York both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly maintain publicly that the NYPD is not targeting people based on race or religion and is merely following “leads.”

Bloomberg said last week, “Everything the NYPD has done is legal, it is appropriate, it is constitutional. They are permitted to travel beyond the border of New York City to investigate cases. … It ‘d be naïve to think we should stop following threats when we got to the border …”

But Bloomberg appeared to acknowledge for the first time that the NYPD did not merely follow leads. “When there’s no lead, it’s just you’re trying to get familiar with what’s going on and where people might go and where people might be.”

A former top NYPD official who asked for anonymity said, “It’s one thing to sit in an office and monitor the websites of Muslim student groups. It is another to send officers to other jurisdictions without informing local officials. If they [the NYPD] have reasonable grounds, let’s hear about it. If not, it’s a waste of energy.”

What neither Bloomberg nor Kelly will say publicly is that the NYPD’s out-of-the-city spying is being conducted without the help or knowledge of the FBI, the country’s leading agency in fighting terrorism.

“Has the NYPD’s Intelligence Division been sharing all this intelligence information with its law enforcement partners on the Joint [FBI and NYPD] Terrorism Task Force?” said a former FBI official. “I bet not.”

“What if they came across an imminent terrorist situation? Are we to believe that Kelly and Cohen [David Cohen, Deputy Commissioner of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division] would tell their people to back off and contact the FBI and the JTTF in the area? Why would we trust them to do that when their track record does not support it?

“…Also, if this precedent is allowed, what would stop the LAPD, the Chicago PD or the Washington D.C. PD from doing the same thing anywhere in the country? What a mess [and a danger] that would be.”

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Copyright © 2012 Leonard Levitt