One Police Plaza

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Delusion and Illusion

October 3, 2011

Was it a slip of the tongue? A subliminal wish? Or a not-so-secret desire to insert himself into every conceivable terrorism-fighting operation?

We’re talking about Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s headline-making claim on “60 Minutes” last week that the NYPD could shoot down an airplane.

His assertion was so over the top, one has to wonder whether his past terrorism-fighting claims may be equally overstated.

Subsequent comments by Mayor Michael Bloomberg were not comforting. Rather, they made Kelly seem a little like Dr. Strangelove.

“The New York City Police Department has lots of capabilities you don’t know about and you won’t know about them,” he said.

It’s nonsense that the NYPD could, on its own, shoot down a jetliner.

Hearing the normally disciplined Kelly assert such authority only raises questions about his judgment.

Even the NYPD’s later clarification — that Kelly was not thinking jetliner but a possible anthrax-laden terrorist crop-duster — was misleading. He’d need civilian authority — maybe even Bloomberg’s, but more likely, the feds’ — to give such an order.

Kelly’s statement, unchallenged by interviewer Scott Pelley, also reflected the media’s longstanding reluctance to ask him tough questions.

This timidity has allowed Kelly to orchestrate a myth: that for the past ten years, he has been the lone man standing between New York City and another terrorist attack.

But if Kelly is standing alone, it is an isolation of his own making or in his own mind.

Since 2002 when he returned as commissioner, he has gone out of his way to antagonize such law enforcement partners as the Port Authority Police, who man the city’s airports, and the FBI, which Kelly described in 2003 as unable to “pick out a Yemeni from a Palestinian.”

To great fanfare in 2004, the NYPD arrested Pakistani-American Shahawar Matin Siraj for plotting to blow up the Herald Square subway station on the eve of the 2004 Republican National convention. Kelly did not inform the FBI of its investigation until 48 hours before the NYPD presented its evidence to federal prosecutors.

Siraj, who at his trial appeared to be slow-witted, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Testimony at his trial revealed that the NYPD paid an informant $100,000 over several months to egg Siraj on. Whether Siraj had the wit to carry out such a plot by himself remains an open question.

Kelly has also feuded with top police officials whose interest in fighting terrorism appeared to coincide with his.

In 2006 upon learning that William Bratton, then heading the Los Angeles Police Department, would play a central role in an international terrorism conference that the NYPD co-sponsored with Manhattan Institute, Kelly withdrew at the last minute. He then threw together a rival terrorism conference and held it at Police Plaza on the same day.

The only law enforcement agency that Kelly seems to willingly accept assistance from is the Central Intelligence Agency — assistance that, the Associated Press has recently reported, may be illegal.

Larry Sanchez, a CIA agent doing double duty as an Assistant NYPD Commissioner in its Intelligence Division, was said to have established the model for the NYPD’s blanket spying on the city’s Muslims — infiltrating their mosques, schools, cafes, restaurants and student groups.

In the next few weeks, several lawsuits are expected to challenge the legality of that spying.

Kelly has long maintained that his aggressive anti-terror efforts have prevented 13 terrorist plots against the city.

What he doesn’t say is that other law enforcement agencies stopped virtually all these plots — not the NYPD.

Take the plot that Kelly talks about the most — the attempt to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge by Iyman Faris, an Ohio trucker, who apparently reported to the highest levels of Al Qaeda.

No one questions that the plot was real.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the principal architect of 9/11, was apparently behind it. Don’t think for a moment that bad guys aren’t out there out longing to kill us.

Kelly has maintained that Faris called off the plot after seeing NYPD patrol cars guarding the bridge, then sent back the coded message to his Al Qaeda superiors: “The weather is too hot.”

That’s all true.

What Kelly doesn’t say is that the NYPD was guarding the bridge, not because of its own intelligence but because of a tip from the FBI, which received its information from the CIA after interrogating top Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, who was later water-boarded at Guantanamo.

And just for the record, the phrase “The weather is too hot” came from a message stored on Faris’s computer — which was discovered by the FBI.

You can have all the aircraft, helicopters and radiation detection boats showcased on “60 Minutes,” but if you can’t get along with your law enforcement partners, you can’t protect New York or anywhere else.

That proved to be case in the most serious post-9/11 terrorism threat to New York City — the subway bombings planned by Najibullah Zazi.

NYPD meddling tipped off the suspects that law enforcement was on to them, nearly sabotaging the case against them.

Without informing the FBI, which was tracking Zazi as he drove from Colorado to New York, the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence David Cohen ordered detectives to show Zazi’s picture to a police informant. The informant, Imam Ahmad Wais Afzali, then tipped off Zazi’s father. Fortuitously, the FBI had placed a wiretap on Zazi’s father’s phone. Bureau agents had to scramble, and arrested the plotters prematurely.

Cohen was so embarrassed when his screw-up became public [see NYPD Confidential, Sept. 21, 2009], he ordered the transfer of Intel Deputy Inspector Paul Ciorra, an Iraq war veteran with extensive terrorism knowledge. [See NYPD Confidential, Sept. 28, 2009.]

The meddling had nothing to do with Ciorra. Rather, Cohen needed a scapegoat for his own mistake.

And who did Cohen direct to give Ciorra his transfer order? Sources say it was his assistant commissioner Sanchez.

Sometimes, though, even law enforcement cooperation is not enough to prevent a terror incident.

In April, 2010, Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani immigrant, placed a bomb in his car and parked it at Times Square.

That it didn’t detonate had nothing to do with law enforcement actions, Kelly’s or anybody else’s. It was blind luck.

Which may well be the reason there has been no successful terrorist attack against New York since 9/11.


Copyright © 2011 Leonard Levitt