One Police Plaza

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Something Less Than Terror

May 31, 2010

Those 11 terrorist plots against New York City that Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Paul Browne are forever warning about?

Better make that 10.

Federal prosecutors acknowledged in court last week that those four skells from upstate Newburgh, who allegedly plotted to blow up Bronx synagogues and take down a military aircraft a year ago, are not part of a terrorist organization.

"It's going to be about if these guys were willing to blow something up," Assistant U.S. Attorney David Raskin said. "It's not about al-Qaeda."

In May 2009, amidst a torrent of publicity, the FBI, Homeland Security officials and the New York City Police Department [using a vehicle resembling an armored personnel carrier] arrested four small-time career criminals outside the Riverdale Jewish Center in a bizarre sting operation.

After the suspects planted what they believed to be bombs outside a Riverdale synagogue, to be detonated later by remote control, the four planned to drive to a National Guard base in Newburgh to shoot down a military aircraft with a Stinger surface-to-air missile.

Both the bombs and the Stinger were fakes, provided by the FBI.

Kelly, his FBI counterpart Joseph Demarest, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Long Island’s yahoo Congressman Peter King, and a panoply of other law enforcement and elected officials railed for the next few days about the dangers of terrorism.

An Assistant U.S. Attorney, one Eric Snyder, said, “It is hard to imagine a more chilling plot.”

“The idea was to create a ‘fireball that would make the country gasp,’” a law enforcement source told the Daily News.

“This latest attempt to attack our freedoms shows that the homeland security threats are sadly all too real…” said Mayor Bloomberg.

A couple of days later, Kelly announced that the four Newburgh lowlifes had no connection to international terrorism. James Cromitie, the alleged mastermind, had a record of 27 arrests, at least a dozen for drug offenses. He had spent 12 years of his sorry life behind bars.

To a city and a police department traumatized by 9/11, there seems to be no distinction between international terrorism and the lowlifes who run their mouths with the encouragement of law enforcement.

This is probably why a Brooklyn jury in 2006 convicted Shahawar Matin Siraj of plotting to blow up the Herald Square subway station. His plot was abetted by an NYPD informant who met Siraj at a mosque and who was paid $100,000 by the department to egg Siraj on.

This is also why the NYPD — although it will never publicly acknowledge it — continues to send Intelligence detectives to infiltrate mosques across the city. Whether it is legal to use officers for such work without “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity is unclear.

This is not to say there aren’t bad guys out there – real terrorists — who want to kill us, like Najibullah Zazi, the Flushing High School grad from Afghanistan who plotted to explode bombs in the subway and who received terror training in Pakistan.

Or, more recently, the would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, although his alleged ties to foreign terrorism remain murky.

If there was any good news from this public disclosure about the Bronx case, it is that law enforcement authorities may become more selective in targeting suspected terrorists.

But don’t count on it.

During last week’s court proceedings on the four Newburgh skells, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Halperin argued that a lack of overseas connections didn't mean the men weren't terrorists.

Candor has been one of John Timoney’s outstanding qualities. More than any other NYPD official, he has been open with the media and willing to criticize himself.

In his book, Beat Cop to Top Cop, [Univ. of Penn.], Timoney — the NYPD’s Number 2 who went on to lead the Philadelphia and Miami police — is often critical of himself for actions and outbursts, like calling Howard Safir a “lightweight.”

Still, this memoir by the man Esquire magazine called “America’s Best Cop” isn’t as candid as the man has been in real life.

Case in point: his mistake in accepting a free leased vehicle while Chief of the Miami department. Timoney doesn’t see the problem in accepting such a freebie. Instead, he points out in his book that the car dealer who did him the favor had no dealings with the city and that, when questions were raised, Timoney purchased the car at full value.

Is this just a lapse in an otherwise distinguished 30-year career? Or has Timoney been exercising power for so long that he believes he can operate under different ethical standards from ordinary folk?

On the other hand, there are many places in his book where the old Timoney shines through. Another quality that distinguished him was standing up for his cops, often to his own detriment.

Nowhere was this more true than during Mollen Commission corruption scandal, when federal and state prosecutors competed with each other in indicting 36 cops from Harlem’s corrupt 30th precinct, which came to be known as the Dirty Thirty.

Timoney found himself odd man out when he protested hardball prosecutorial tactics like secretly arresting the most corrupt cops, then sending them back to the precinct wearing wires to entrap others on lesser charges.

After the suicide of a captain, the indictment of a rookie for the most minor of infractions, and the unsubstantiated whispers of corruption that led to a third officer’s being passed over for a top command, Timoney complained to prosecutors about their tactics.

The result: prosecutors accused him in the media of being “soft” on corruption, a charge he was powerless to refute.

Timoney is also silent on two sensitive issues, one of which was written about in Esquire, the effect of his 24/7, 30-year career on his two children.

The second is his last-minute decision in 2001 to apply for the Police Commissioner’s job in Los Angeles, nearly short-circuiting his former boss, Bill Bratton, who held the inside track. As NYPD commissioner seven years before, Bratton had jumped Timoney over 16 senior officers, making him, at age 45, the youngest Chief of Department in NYPD history.

While Timoney is respectful towards Bratton in his book, he is more respectful of Ray Kelly, whom Bratton succeeded in 1994 and who returned as police commissioner in 2002, bitter and resentful of Bratton for taking his job.

Kelly was equally bitter towards high-ranking officers close to him who, like Timoney, went to work for Bratton, although, as Timoney points out, the NYPD’s culture holds that loyalty is not to the individual but to the job — to the police commissioner, no matter who holds the job.

With “Beat Cop to Top Cop,” Timoney seems to have successfully navigated a tricky diplomatic course. Kelly recently appeared at a Harvard Club book party for Timoney.

Bratton, now living back in Manhattan, was noticeably absent. He was said to be out of town on business.


Copyright © 2010 Leonard Levitt