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The NYPD’s Najibullah Shuffle

May 14, 2012

Let’s get this straight, readers.

The NYPD did not — repeat, did not — undermine the FBI’s investigation of Najibullah Zazi’s 2009 plot to blow up the New York subways, as NYPD Confidential and the New York Times had reported.

At least, that’s what Police Commissioner Ray Kelly says.

“Whoever leaked that information,” Kelly said last week, “either did it maliciously or was just uninformed.”

Kelly’s comments about the plot that law enforcement officials have called the most serious threat to the city since 9/11 dovetailed with similar caterwauling in a May 5th Wall Street Journal article by Mitchell D. Silber, the NYPD’s mid-level civilian Director of Intelligence Analysis. Silber criticized “false allegations, supplied anonymously to the New York Times in 2009 that the New York Police Department had undermined the investigation, forcing federal authorities to move more quickly than planned.”

[Neither Silber nor Kelly mentioned this column, which had reported that information earlier. [See NYPD Confidential column of Sep. 21, 2009.]

Kelly’s and Silber’s revisionist history follow three years of “no comment” on the issue.

Their belated explanation was sparked by Zazi’s testimony last month at the trial of one of his two co-conspirators, Adis Medunjanin.

Zazi said that he cut short the plot after Port Authority Police, apparently at the direction of the FBI, conducted a “random” search of his car at the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge on Sep. 10, 2009. The FBI had tracked Zazi as he drove from Colorado to New York.

For reasons that remain unclear, the search by the bridge failed to turn up Zazi’s bomb equipment, and he was permitted to continue into the city.

That same day, NYPD detective Dan Sirakowsky of the Intelligence Division’s top-secret Special Services Unit contacted his longtime informant, Queens imam Ahmad Wais Afzali.

Minutes later, a detective and a sergeant showed up at Afzali’s home with pictures of Zazi and his accomplices.

According to a Justice Department news release of Sep. 20, 2009, on which this column based its reporting, Afzali then tipped off Zazi’s father about the police inquiry.

The news release stated that on the following day, Sep. 11, 2009, Mohammed Zazi, Najibullah’s father, “placed a call to Afzali which lasted approximately 20 minutes. That same day, the FBI lawfully intercepted a phone conversation between Mohammed Zazi and his son, Najibullah Zazi. An affidavit alleges that, during the conversation, Mohammed Zazi told his son that he had spoken to Afzali, who had informed him about being visited by law enforcement and shown photographs.

“In the midst of this phone call, Najibullah Zazi allegedly received a call from Afzali, who discussed his meeting with law enforcement the day before….”

On Sep. 12, 2009, Zazi cut short his trip to New York and, says the Justice Department news release, “flew from LaGuardia Airport in New York to Denver.”

The NYPD Confidential column of Sep. 21, 2009, reported that “The Bureau was forced to prematurely arrest him [Zazi], his father and Afzali before learning the full extent of the plot.”

Law enforcement sources say the NYPD never informed the FBI of its approach to Afzali — either before or after it contacted him.

The FBI only learned of it from those intercepted telephone calls.

In 2010, Afzali was found guilty of lying to the FBI and deported to Saudi Arabia.

His role in the Zazi-led subway plot was airbrushed from all testimony in Medunjanin’s trial. Although Afzali’s picture was flashed on a screen, he was never identified by name.

Instead, Zazi testified that he called off his subway plot on Sep. 10, 2009, after law enforcement authorities had searched his car at the GW Bridge.

This prompted Silber’s Wall Street Journal article, which, Silber maintained, absolved the NPYD of undermining the FBI’s investigation.

Silber wrote in the Journal: “On the front page of its Sep. 22, 2009 issue, the New York Times reported that the NYPD’s ‘decision to enlist a Queens imam …backfired’ with unnamed officials contending ‘the imam’s disclosures went a long way towards forcing their hand’ in the investigation.

“However, Zazi’s and Ahmedzay’s [Zazi’s other cohort in the plot] testimony at Medunjanin’s trial documented that the plot was abandoned the day before the call. They revealed that an earlier series of law enforcement actions in aggregate raised their suspicion and forced them to close down the operation.”

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Poor Silber. He still doesn’t get it.

Let’s assume for the moment that Zazi testified truthfully: that it was the Sep. 10 car search that led him to call off the bomb plot.

The NYPD did not know at the time that Zazi had called off the plot, if indeed he really had.

Instead, with authorization from the highest levels of the NYPD — that means Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence David Cohen — the NYPD acted on its own and, without informing the FBI, secretly launched its own informant, Afzali.

The NYPD’s approach to Afzali defied protocol and common sense.

It appeared to be a desperate, lone wolf attempt to get out ahead of the Bureau on the case.

Most important, it endangered lives, and underscored how the NYPD did not cooperate with the FBI.

Despite this, FBI Director Robert Mueller publicly praised Kelly for his cooperation in a misguided display of law enforcement unity.

Even President Obama got into the act, telephoning Kelly with congratulations, a call that Kelly’s spokesman, Paul Browne, trumpeted to the media. [See NYPD Confidential, Mar. 8, 2010.]

There remains plenty we still don’t know about the Zazi investigation.

BulletWho specifically authorized the Intel officers to show those pictures to the imam?
BulletWhy didn’t the NYPD tell the FBI of its approach to the imam either before or afterwards?
BulletWas a decision made specifically not to tell the FBI?

And there is a final issue that neither Silber nor Kelly has addressed in its revisionist accounting. It concerns the transfer of Deputy Inspector Paul Ciorra.

Remember Ciorra? He is an Iraq war veteran with an extensive knowledge of terrorism who had been in charge of the Intelligence Division’s special units and had nothing to do with the decision to approach Afzali.

Yet, on Sep. 17, 2009, within a week of Afzali’s tip-off phone call to Zazi, he was transferred to a captain’s slot in the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Trials. His assignment — to prepare the schedules of the department’s five police trial judges — was an obvious demotion or, in department parlance, a “dump.”

That’s called scapegoating. The move was apparently made to deflect criticism of Cohen.

That’s the way Cohen operates. Just ask former Assistant Chief John Cutter, Intel’s former commanding officer, who was forced to retire after the disclosure in 2003 that detectives had questioned arrested anti-war protestors about their friends, colleagues and political affiliations, then stored their responses in a data bank.

Whose idea was it to put those responses into the data bank? Police sources say it wasn’t Cutter’s.

After the Times followed the Ciorra story on Sep. 24, 2009, Ciorra was transferred again — to a more favorable posting at the Highway Division.

CLUBBED AND DRUBBED. In a recent front-page editorial, headlined, “Go for it, Ray,” the Daily News urged Commissioner Kelly to run for mayor, saying that 46 per cent of New Yorkers wanted him to enter the race.

A new Quinnipiac University poll, however, says Kelly would lose to each of the three leading Democratic mayoral candidates in head-to-head match-ups.

The News reported the poll results in a three-paragraph story with a much small headline: “Kelly clubbed in mayoral polling.”

NO SHOT CLOCK FOR THE NYPD. Reacting to last week’s column that Commissioner Kelly’s three-man crime statistics commission was now 311 days late in releasing its report, a reader pointed out that Your Humble Servant’s mathematical calculations were incorrect.

Kelly formed his commission to examine whether the downgrading of crime statistics is a city-wide problem in January 2010. Kelly’s spokesman Paul Browne said it would take about six months to complete, which generously put the scheduled release date as June 30, 2010.

That’s not 311 days late. The correct tally, a reader wrote last week, is 676 days.

That was last week. The current number of days late is now 683.

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Copyright © 2012 Leonard Levitt