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NYPD Spying: Brilliance or Obsession?

March 5, 2012

Within 24 hours after Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle died from accidentally crashing his plane into a Manhattan high-rise in 2006, the NYPD was searching for a terrorism link.

The circumstances surrounding the fatal accident suggested a tragedy, not a terrorist attack. Lidle, 34, owned the small Cirrus plane, which smashed into the Belaire Apartments complex on York Avenue and E. 72nd Street on October 11, 2006. With him was his flight instructor, who also died.

The same fate had befallen two other Yankees in the past, most notably, Thurmon Munson, who crashed his own plane and died in 1979. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner described Lidle's death as a “terrible and shocking tragedy that has stunned the entire Yankees organization.” On October 12, 2006, before the 2006 National League Championship game in New York between the Mets and the St. Louis Cardinals, the teams and spectators observed a moment of silence to honor Lidle’s memory.

On that same day, the NYPD began its terrorism investigation.

According to an Intelligence Division document obtained by NYPD Confidential, the police had, by October 12, contacted informants and undercover detectives in at least five mosques and Islamic Centers around the city and in New Jersey to gauge the reaction at these locations to Lidle’s crash.

At the At Taqwa Mosque in Brooklyn, a confidential police informant reported on October 13, 2006, that a congregant seemed upset by news of Lidle’s accident and police moved to get a record of his phone calls.

The NYPD titled this portion of its document: “Report featuring individual who appears agitated after news of crash:”

“Upon hearing of the crash,” that report began, the “active mosque member immediately got on his cell phone. In discussions with CI about the possibility of another attack… [he] told CI he was not aware that something might happen. [He] also warned the source not to go into Manhattan that evening until it was clear what was going on … and for the remainder of the day, was observed taking and receiving numerous calls. Phone dump will be conducted on subject’s phone for that day and time period.”

If the phone dump required a warrant, no mention was made of it in this document.

The document did list two suspected terrorists. They were not at these mosques but were trained pilots. This suggests that the police might have been concerned about a copy cat incident, a terrorist mimicking the Lidle crash and launching an attack.

Police spokesman Paul Browne did not return an email about the document.

Four of those places where the police were monitoring reaction to Lidle’s plane crash appear on the department’s terrorism-related list of “Mosques of Concern,” according to another secret 2006 Intelligence Division document, “The Current Threat: Islamic Extremism,” which this column and the Associated Press reported on last fall.

Since then, the AP and this column have detailed questionable NYPD spying operations ranging from New York City to Newark to Buffalo and possibly beyond, amidst growing concerns that the New York Police Department has overstepped its bounds and possibly broken the law with its widespread anti-terrorism measures.

The NYPD’s investigation of the Cory Lidle plane crash in 2006 appears to be a forerunner of this aggressive posture.

Was the department looking for conspiracies where none existed? Or was it being creative and thinking outside the box, ensuring that Lidle’s crash would not inspire a terrorist attack?

According to the Intelligence Division document on Lidle plane crash, dated Oct. 16, 2006, a Confidential Informant noted of the Brooklyn Islamic Center on Oct. 12: “chatter among the regulars expressing relief and thanks to God that the crash was only an accident and not an act of terrorism, which they stated would not be good either for the U.S. or for any of their home countries.”

On the same day, this document, which is marked “secret” and described as an “Intelligence Note,” referred to the Al-Tawheed Islamic Center of Jersey City and stated: “UC [Undercover detective] reported that after a regular at the mosque told two worshippers of the news, the worshippers’ reaction was ‘that of sorrow.’

“UC further indicated that the worshippers made remarks to the effect that it better be an accident; we don’t need any more heat.’”

On October 13th, according to the Intelligence note, a confidential informant at the Al Khoei Islamic Center in Queens stated that after prayers, an Imam “spoke to worshippers about the plane crash and called on all Muslims to thank God that it was an accident and not terrorist-related. The Imam added that the Muslim religion does not need any more negative association with terrorism.” [The Al Khoei center was not among the listed “Mosques of Concern.”

On the same date, an undercover detective at the Masjid Alfalah Mosque in Queens reported: “Mosque member asked UC if he heard about the plane crash. UC replied in the affirmative. No further discussion ensured and the two then proceeded to other activities.”

A week after the crash, the department concluded that the Lidle plane crash had no link to terrorism.

“In summary, there is no known chatter indicating either happiness over the crash, regret that it was not terrorist attack or interest in carrying out an attack by similar method. That said, the investigator has stated that a follow up will be conducted on the individual” who had appeared agitated after hearing news of the crash.

Commissioner Ray Kelly’s explanation Sunday to the Daily News, justifying the NYPD’s widespread spying on Muslims, does not hold up.

Let’s begin with what he said about the NYPD’s relationship with other law enforcement agencies.

While stating the NYPD needed a “broad base of knowledge,” not bounded by geographic borders, to fight terrorism, Kelly added, “We maintain very close relationships with local authorities.”

Perhaps Kelly can explain which local authorities he is referring to. Apparently not Newark, New Jersey, where, after the AP reported that the NYPD had engaged in widespread spying on the city’s Muslims, Mayor Cory Booker said he was “misled.”

It’s still not clear who knew what about the NYPD’s spying in Newark. The NYPD’s liaison there was Newark Police Director Garry McCarthy, a former top NYPD commander, who has since moved on to Chicago. For what it’s worth, he said on Saturday that as Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department he “does not and will not conduct blanket surveillance and profiling of any community in the city of Chicago.”

If not in Newark, perhaps the local authorities with whom Kelly maintains very close relations are in upstate Buffalo. NYPD Confidential reported last week that, according to a secret Intelligence Division “briefing report,” written in January 2009, the NYPD initiated a “Somali Project,” in which NYPD officers spied on Buffalo’s Somali community. The NYPD’s liaison was then Erie County Undersheriff Richard Donovan, who was the former head of the Buffalo police department.

It was Donovan who offered the NYPD an introduction to the head of security at the University of Buffalo, where the NYPD spied on Muslim students.

It was Donovan who helped the NYPD gather intelligence on Buffalo’s Somalis, although, according to the briefing report, he “was not aware of any crime trends or crime patterns attributed to the ethnic Somali community.”

As for Kelly’s past statements that the NYPD “only follows leads,” maybe he can explain exactly what leads the NYPD was following when on December 30, 2008, according to the briefing report, three NYPD officers — a captain, lieutenant and sergeant — “conducted vehicle surveillance” of five Somali locations in Buffalo that appear to be mosques.

Unlike Newark’s Booker, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown has been silent about what he knew or did not know about the spying of Buffalo’s Somalis.

“The mayor does not comment on police operations, especially those that involve an outside agency,” repeated his spokesman Mike DeGeorge, who doubles as the spokesman for the Buffalo Police Department. [This column incorrectly totaled DeGeorge’s salary last week as $162,000. He says it’s more in the $85,000-$90,000 range.]

Perhaps the most disturbing of Kelly’s remarks to the Daily News concerns that “broad base of knowledge” so necessary to fight terrorism. The NYPD apparently reported none of it from either Newark or Buffalo to the agency that might benefit the most — the Joint [FBI and local law enforcement] Terrorist Task Forces in each of those towns.

That, too, is part of Kelly’s go-it-alone modus operandi. He doesn’t merely seek to protect New York from terrorism. What everyone is afraid to say is that he seeks to do it by himself, with no outside help or interference. How such an attitude makes New Yorkers safer is open to question.

Finally, we turn to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Poor Mayor Mike. He appears to be suffering from the same willful blindness of Met baseball owners, Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, to Bernie Madoff.

Uncomfortable and disinterested in police matters, Bloomberg, like Wilpon and Katz, long ignored what Kelly was doing. Like Wilpon and Katz, he is now in so deep that he apparently feels he has no choice but to stand by his police commissioner.


Copyright © 2012 Leonard Levitt