One Police Plaza

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The Feds’ Leak Investigation: Probe or Payback?

August 1, 2011

The Justice Department’s bulls-eye on the FBI and NYPD via a grand jury probe into leaks in terrorism cases appears, said sources, to have been prompted a year ago by a news story about an Al Qaeda mastermind.

The story was an Associated Press exclusive from Washington about the impending indictment of Adnan Shukrijumah, who had recruited Najibullah Zazi and his Flushing High School pals to blow up New York subways in 2009.

The indictment of the fugitive Shukrijumah, in New York’s Eastern District, linked the Zazi subway plot to another Al Qaeda terrorist plot in Manchester, England.

But the AP published its story before Shukrijumah’s indictment was announced.

The story forced law enforcement officials overseas — in Norway, of all places — to scramble and speed the arrests of two suspects in Oslo. The pair had been under surveillance for a year.

Sources said that the timing of the AP story angered President Obama, prompting the Justice Department to start asking questions about law enforcement leaks to the press.

But those questions appear to have spread beyond Shukrijumah and the subway plot.

According to the Daily News, which broke the story of the grand jury probe, investigators are also focusing on news stories about the would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.

On the run after leaving a car parked with explosives in Times Square last spring, Shahzad fled from his home in Shelton, Connecticut as television crews arrived in his neighborhood. The FBI barely nabbed him at Kennedy Airport as he sat on an Emirates Airline flight about to depart for the Middle East.

At least one FBI official who provided information about Shahzad to television reporters was described by sources last week as “very nervous” about the leaks probe.

The back story of the grand jury investigation is as intriguing as the saga of the terrorism case leaks.

It begins with decades-old distrust between the FBI and an increasingly emboldened NYPD after 9/11.

Tensions have risen to new heights ever since Ray Kelly returned as police commissioner in 2002 and expanded the NYPD’s terrorism-fighting mission. This placed the NYPD in direct competition with the Bureau.

Amidst a deep rift between the two agencies, Zazi was arrested by the FBI in 2009 for the subway plot.

Before his arrest, NYPD detectives — apparently at the direction of Intelligence Division Deputy Commissioner David Cohen and possibly Kelly himself — had shown Zazi’s picture to one of its informants, Queens imam Ahmad Wais Afzali.

But the NYPD never informed the FBI about its contact with Afzali, either before or after.

Unknown to the NYPD, Imam Afzali tipped off Zazi’s father in a phone call. By chance, the FBI was monitoring the call. Agents had to scramble and arrest Zazi prematurely.

So far, four detectives from the New York City Joint Terrorist Task Force [the body comprised of FBI agents and NYPD detectives] have testified before the Washington, D.C. grand jury.

Two NYPD chiefs — Deputy Chief James Shea and Assistant Chief James Waters — are expected to testify, possibly as early as this week.

Waters is the Commanding Office of the NYPD’s Counter Terrorism Bureau, to which the JTTF detectives report.

Shea had been the commanding officer of the JTTF. Last March, he refused a possibly unlawful order from his NYPD superior, Deputy Commissioner for Counter Terrorism Richard D’Addario, to remove classified FBI documents.

The result of his refusal to break the law: Kelly transferred him to the police academy.

Around the same time, the JTTF’s Number Two, John Nicholson, also refused a possibly unlawful order from Cohen. Cohen had ordered him to remove classified FBI documents concerning the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The result of Nicholson’s refusal to break the law: Kelly transferred Nicholson, whose background is in naval intelligence, to Patrol Borough Brooklyn South.

Since his appointment as FBI Director in 2001, Robert Mueller has refrained from criticizing Kelly.

Mueller has remained silent even as Kelly and his department have continued to denigrate and, in the case of the subway bombing plot, hinder the FBI.

While Mueller has not changed his public stance about Kelly, one wonders whether the leak probe could be a form of payback.

Could the timing of the leak probe be linked to the fact that Congress recently confirmed Mueller’s reappointment as FBI Director for another two years after President Obama made a special request to extend his ten-year term?

Or is the leak probe another Obama misadventure, destined to go nowhere?

That’s Alice as in Alice McGillion, the former head of the NYPD’s Public Information office.

She served in that pressure cooker under Police Commissioners Robert McGuire and Benjamin Ward, then was briefly appointed First Deputy under Commissioner Richard Condon.

The restaurant wasn’t Alice’s of folk-song fame, but a midtown joint called Legends, managed by ex-cop Noel Firth. It was the setting last Monday for the reunion she organized of cops, top brass and reporters who worked at Police Plaza back in the day.

The brass who attended included McGuire, Condon, former First Deputy Pat Kelleher and John Miller, who held McGillion’s job for a year — until Rudy Giuliani fired him in a slap against his boss, Bill Bratton.

Even McGillion’s DCPI sergeant Ed Burns, father of movie star and director Ed Burns, showed up. Sergeant Burns worked the midnight tour while running his own public relations firm during the day.

You could do that then when your brother was the PBA’s Second Vice President.

The joke at the reunion was that Burns hadn’t had as good a night’s sleep since he retired.

It was a different era then, in the 1980s — when the mayor and police commissioner actually respected the media.

This is not to say that they liked the media or didn’t try to manipulate reporters.

McGillion was masterful in hiding Ward’s peccadilloes, including his three-day disappearance during the Palm Sunday Massacre.

And then-Mayor Ed Koch pretended that Ward had not gone missing at all.

Back in the day, there was also a humility among the department’s top commanders that is absent now.

Your Humble Servant recalled an event in 1995 attended by five previous NYPD commissioners, where McGuire, whom many consider the finest police commissioner of the past two decades, praised, almost in astonishment, the department’s historic crime reductions under Bratton.

Can anyone imagine Ray Kelly praising anyone but himself?

That’s the length of time that the report from Kelly’s three-man Crime Commission, investigating whether police systemically downgraded crime reports, is overdue.


Copyright © 2011 Leonard Levitt