One Police Plaza

Intel's Paul Ciorra: Coming Full Circle

February 9, 2015

It was a move made with no fanfare and drew scant attention. Yet it sent a message about the direction of the NYPD’s Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism Bureaus under Deputy Commissioner John Miller and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.

Last month, Inspector Paul Ciorra of the Highway Division was promoted to Deputy Chief of the Intelligence Division, where he had been until 2009 when Miller’s predecessor, David Cohen, forced him out.

"Anyone who knows what actually happened knows that he [Ciorra] was offered up as a scapegoat for the embarrassment of what the NYPD suffered,” said a former NYPD intelligence chief. “He [Ciorra] took one for the team.”

Credit former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly for hiring Cohen, a longtime CIA operative, who created a new Intelligence Division virtually from scratch to fight terrorism. Discredit Kelly for allowing Cohen to perpetuate a culture in which Intel refused to share information with outside law enforcement agencies and with units within the NYPD.

This played itself out in September 2009 in what was perhaps the most serious terrorism threat against the city since 9/11: a plot by Colorado-based Najibullah Zazi and two friends from Queens to plant bombs in the city’s subways on the anniversary of 9/11.

While the FBI tracked Zazi’s movements as he drove from Colorado to New York, Cohen ordered an Intel detective to contact a confidential informant about Zazi.

But Cohen did not alert the FBI, which was leading the investigation.

The informant, Queens Imam Wais Afzali, tipped off Zazi’s father, who informed his son, who cut short his trip to New York, short-circuiting the investigation. Fortunately, the Bureau had placed a wiretap on the father’s telephone. Agents were forced to scramble, and arrested Zazi and his two plotters prematurely.

To obscure his own lapse Cohen transferred Ciorra, then a deputy inspector, with the title of Intel Collection Coordinator, to a captain’s slot in the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Trials, where his assignment was to prepare the schedules of the department’s five police trial judges — an obvious dump.

After this column and the NewYorkTimes suggested Ciorra had been made a scapegoat — [See NYPD Confidential Sept. 28, 2009] — Kelly transferred him again: this time to the position of commanding officer of the Highway Unit — a full Inspector’s position.

Except for disbanding the notorious Demographics Unit — which supposedly mapped Muslim areas across the city and which Kelly quietly reduced after a series of damning articles by the Associated Press — virtually all of Kelly’s and Cohen’s anti-terrorism programs remain intact.

“There is almost no difference structurally or mechanically,” says Miller. “If you go line by line down my Intel bureau vs Cohen’s, I don’t think you see great shifting of people or resources.”

Rather, the greatest difference has been in cooperation and collaboration.

“It’s all about how the Intelligence Bureau and Counter-Terrorism Bureau — which includes the Joint Terrorism Task Force, comprised of FBI agents and NYPD detectives — function together. They don’t wonder what Intel is hiding from them.

“One of the challenges we faced was a lot of history of bad blood between the Intelligence Bureau and the FBI, even though half the JTTF is made up of cops. We've come a long way to rebuild those bridges. The exchange of information is constant. We put in a lot of effort to make it work so that it’s collaborative, not competitive.”

This, says Miller “was the easiest change to make and the most needed.”

As for returning Ciorra to Intel, Miller says: “He’s a good choice because he has a deep background in Intel. He knew the players and our federal partners so that bringing him back into the fold meant we were able to have someone in a senior operational positon with no learning curve.”

Says the FBI’s William Sweeney, who heads JTTF in New York, of Ciorra: “He’s passionate about the missions and continues to be a great partner.”

BRIAN'S END? Approaching his 60th birthday, Richard Esposito has just been handed the biggest assignment of an already impressive career: the investigation of NBC’s television anchor and media personality Brian Williams, following accusations that he exaggerated and/or lied about his role as a reporter.

Before Esposito became city editor at NY Newsday, metropolitan editor at the Daily News, and an investigative reporter for ABC [with a two-year time out for public relations], he was a police reporter — and a good one.

In the late 1980s, he broke the story of the NYPD’s “black desk,” which secretly monitored black ministers and politicians and the black radio station WLIB in search of what police believed was a black radical cabal.

Now, as the head of NBC Investigations, he could be in a tough spot. The trickiest part may be his own reputation. If he lays out the facts that make it impossible for Williams to remain as a newscaster, he could anger his bosses. If he comes down too easy, the media could come after him.

He wouldn’t comment for this article, but people knowledgeable about the investigation say he has assigned a dozen reporters to the story and that NBC’s top brass are behind him — at least for now.

Esposito also knows Williams pretty well. Last year, he helped arrange Williams’s interview with whistle-blower/traitor Edward Snowden in Moscow, which was billed as a Williams exclusive and could have cemented his anchor legacy.

Williams apologized on air last week for saying that in 2003 he’d been on an aircraft in Iraq that was hit by fire. “Instead, I was in the following aircraft,” he explained. If his lapse is viewed a single isolated incident, he could weather this.

“In recalling a story ten or 12 years old,” said Newsday’s former editor, Tony Insolia, “I could see how he could have made a mistake and thought it not important enough to correct it. Memory is faulty.”

If, on the other hand, as media reports suggest, Williams fabricated other acts of derring-do — in particular, during his coverage of Hurricane Katrina — he is dead meat.

Says Insolia, “If a news person or organization does not have credibility, what does it have? Nothing.”

Politicians can exaggerate or lie about their exploits. Connecticut U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a vocal supporter of veterans and the military, claimed he had served in Vietnam. He hadn’t. He’s still a Senator.

But the news business is different.

As Frank McCulloch, my old boss at Time Magazine and the best newsman I’ve ever come across, taught young reporters, “A reporter can’t lie. You don’t have to tell the full truth, but you can never lie.”

Back in the early 1980s when Newsday opened its bureau at Police Plaza, the paper considered hiring Edward Droge, who as a rookie cop a decade before testified before the Knapp Commission on police corruption that he had violated his oath as a police officer by shaking down drug-dealers and gamblers.

Since then, he had turned his life around, attending Yale and writing a book. He subsequently earned a master’s and doctoral degree from Harvard and served as an educator for 25 years.

“He was a very impressive guy,” said Insolia, who interviewed him. “He was intelligent and made a good impression.”

In the end, Newsday did not hire Droge. Because of his past, he couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth.

Even in TV journalism — which is as much entertainment as news — reporters cannot be caught lying.

“Television news is driven by the competitive race for ratings,” says Columbia Journalism Professor Emeritus Melvin Mencher. “Williams understands that the more exciting the news, the more the anchor becomes a personality and the greater the ratings. TV news tends to make its anchors into actors who become part of the story. It’s not coincidence that anchors are called ‘celebrities’ and ‘personalities.’ The result distorts the facts.”

Williams stepped down temporarily on Saturday, saying he had become a distraction to the news. “It has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions,” Williams said.

He made it sound as though that decision was his. Perhaps it was. If it wasn’t, he may not be returning.


Copyright © 2015 Leonard Levitt