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Obama and Kelly: Small Footprint vs. Long Shadow

September 9, 2013

Whether or not the United States takes action in Syria could be a watershed moment for the nation.

What we decide to do in response to that government’s use of chemical weapons may determine whether we remain the world’s greatest power, with the responsibility and sacrifice that this has entailed for the 65 years since World War II, or whether we retreat into the isolationism that followed World War I and continued until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

After wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam that accomplished nothing, is it any wonder the U.S. has little stomach for attacking Syria?

Despite his rhetoric, President Obama doesn’t seem to have the stomach for it either.

On a smaller and more parochial scale, the NYPD may soon be grappling with similar choices when it comes to fighting terrorism.

Contrast the caution of President Obama as he weighs intervention in Syria with the belligerence of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who has stationed NYPD detectives in terrorist hotspots around the globe while spying upon every aspect of Muslim life in New York City — encompassing mosques, schools, businesses, student groups, non-governmental organizations and individuals.

While Obama seems to envision a smaller footprint for America, Kelly in his decade as commissioner has cast a giant shadow across New York City.

Returning as commissioner in 2002, Kelly presented himself to New Yorkers as the lone man standing between the city and another terrorist attack.

He recruited David Cohen, a Dr. Strangelove-like character, as Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence after Cohen retired from the CIA.

Just as President Bush claimed “Mission Accomplished” as Iraq degenerated into chaos, Kelly claimed numerous terrorism-fighting successes, which amounted to virtually nothing.

Early on, he cited terrorist 16 plots against the city that he said the NYPD had prevented. He announced on national television that the NYPD could shoot down a terrorist jetliner.

Perhaps it was coincidence, perhaps not, but Kelly and Cohen used as their conduit to the outside world the former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, the same Judith Miller who had served as the Bush White House’s conduit to the Times over Iraq, hyping its strategies in the run-up to the war.

After the Times forced her resignation, she resurfaced in New York City, working for the Manhattan Institute, a group of NYPD-fawning intellectuals. [After Bernie Kerik returned from Iraq in 2003, having been sent there by President Bush to train Iraq’s national police force, the Manhattan Institute sponsored a talk on terrorism he presented at the Harvard Club. When he finished speaking, they gave him a standing ovation.]

Kelly’s most significant accomplishment as police commissioner may have been to create an intelligence division from scratch, the police historian Thomas Reppetto has pointed out. But other than alienating virtually the city’s entire Muslim population, what has it actually accomplished?

For all its intelligence gathering, the NYPD has produced but three indictments and two convictions — of men with either limited intelligence or psychiatric histories.

Many of Kelly’s and Cohen’s assertions were questioned years before by NYPD Confidential .

More recently and in more detail, they have been questioned by the Associated Press’s Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for pointing out, among other things, that unlike federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI, the NYPD has acted at the edge of the law, unchecked by outside supervision or accountability.

But written from Washington, their stories have gained little traction in New York City. The mainstream media largely ignored or attacked them. Still fearful of a terrorist attack, many New Yorkers view Kelly as the city most successful police commissioner in history.

Apuzzo’s and Goldman’s new book “ENEMIES WITHIN” expands on their reporting. As their template, they quote Voltaire: “Beware of the words internal security, for they are the eternal cry of the oppressor.”

They tell their story through the prism of the Colorado-based terrorist Najibullah Zazi, who plotted the most serious attack against the city since 9/11.

Zazi, who grew up in Queens, plotted with two friends in 2009 to bomb the city’s subways on the eve of the eighth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks.

While the FBI tracked him as he drove east, Cohen nearly sabotaged their investigation by allowing an NYPD detective to show Zazi’s picture to an NYPD informant, Ahmad Wais Afzali, a Muslim imam. Afzali then tipped off Zazi’s father, who contacted his son, who called off the plot.

So distrustful were Cohen and Kelly of the FBI and so determined were they to outshine the FBI, that Cohen never informed the Bureau of the NYPD’s contact with Afzali, either before or after.

The FBI discovered the contact when they intercepted a phone call from Afzali to Zazi’s father, informing Zazi of the NYPD’s interest in his son. This forced the FBI to scramble and arrest him prematurely.

Although Cohen had made the final decision to contact the informant, he scapegoated Intel Deputy Inspector, Paul Ciorra, who Apuzzo and Goldman say had suggested the idea.

He transferred Ciorra to a captain’s position, where his assignment was to prepare the schedules of the department’s five police trial judges — an obvious demotion.

Only after this reporter — and then the NY Times — got on to it, was Ciorra transferred again, this time to a full inspector’s slot in the Highway Division, suggesting a future promotion.

Already, Apuzzo’s and Goldman’s reporting has been attacked, by no one less than Kelly himself. On national television last week, Kelly criticized their latest AP story, which included secret Intelligence Division documents, as “fiction,” saying the two were “hyping their book.”

Kelly was seconded by the NY Post, which headlined an editorial: “Slime the cops, sell a book.”

The editorial criticized Apuzzo and Goldman for suggesting that the NYPD had “botched the hunt” for Zazi, saying he had already curtailed his plot before the NYPD contacted its informant.

“So,” said the Post, “here’s the question for our AP friends: If you’re the police and you learn a terrorist is in town and planning to blow up your subways, would you do all you can to find him? The authors don’t realize the Zazi case is an example of what cops should be doing, not what they shouldn’t.”

O.K. So here’s NYPD Confidential’s question for the Post: If Cohen did nothing wrong by contacting the NYPD informant without telling the FBI, why did he transfer Ciorra?

So what will become of its Intelligence Division if, as seems likely, Kelly and Cohen are no longer in charge? No mayoral candidate has yet to discuss that, at least publicly.

Whoever is elected, the new mayor will have to make a determination whether to continue the NYPD’s long terrorism shadow a la Kelly or retreat to the smaller footprint a la Obama.

Edited by Donald Forst

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