One Police Plaza

Ray Kelly's Vigilance: Half-Truths, Misstatements — and Key Omissions

September 14, 2015

So Ray Kelly has written his memoir.

Vigilance: My Life Serving America and Protecting Its Empire City is the emphatic, if not immodest, title from the longest serving and most powerful police commissioner in city history, the man who guided New York through the aftermath of 9/11.

Maintaining that the federal government, the FBI in particular, had twice failed to protect the city, Kelly sought nothing less than to position the NYPD, and himself, at the center of the country’s terrorism fight. Over the next 12 years, he would maintain that the NYPD prevented 16 plots that targeted New York.

So terrified were New Yorkers of another attack and so revered was Kelly, that many viewed him as the lone man standing between New York and another terrorist attack, as the nation’s foremost police historian Thomas Reppetto said of him. Mitchell Moss, NYU’s Henry Hart Rice Professor of Urban Policy and Planning, expressed the feelings of the city’s body politic, calling Kelly, “our secretary of defense, head of the CIA and … chief architect rolled into one.”

At the same time, Kelly sought to overcome the insults of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his police commissioner Bill Bratton, who, while dramatically lowering the city’s crime rate in the mid-1990s, had termed Kelly’s “community policing” policies in his first term as commissioner under Mayor David Dinkins “social work.” Returning as commissioner, Kelly ramped up the department’s policy of Stop and Frisk to further lower the crime rate, pressuring cops, in the words of PBA president Pat Lynch, to make increasingly more stops.

The city’s mainstream media, which had gone into a post-9/11 swoon when it came to critical reporting on the NYPD, fawned over Kelly. A front-page story in the New York Times on Nov. 29, 2007, headlined: “City Homicides Still Dropping, to Under 500, Lowest in Decades,” began: “Homicides began falling in the early 1990s when Raymond W. Kelly first served as police commissioner, and plummeted further under subsequent commissioners.”

That same year, the Daily News praised Kelly’s revamped Intelligence Division after its detectives blocked an Iranian delegation from leaving Kennedy Airport for the United Nations, a violation of diplomatic protocol that upset the Secret Service and the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, which had joined the NYPD at the airport to escort the Iranians to the U.N.

“The NYPD stood tall against the heavily armed [Iranian] entourage,” the News editorialized. “[T]he cops put the Iranians in their place until the feds insisted New York had to abide by diplomatic niceties.” [See NYPD Confidential Oct 1, 2007].

By 2008, Kelly had achieved celebrity status. He was profiled in Men’s Vogue magazine where he was described as wearing “a bespoke Martin Greenfield suit, French cuffs fastened with weighty gold links, and a gold-colored Charvet tie.” A Sept 7, 2009 article in the Times showed him in full-color haberdashery, and placed him in the “rich tradition of fancy-dressing police officials.”

“My tastes have sort of matured throughout the years,” the article quoted him.

So popular was he in 2009, he was considered a possible mayoral candidate — until Bloomberg broke his pledge not to seek a third term and decided to run himself.

Yet, four years later, Kelly was vilified as having improperly and perhaps illegally spied on Muslims at their mosques, schools and businesses. A federal judge ruled that Kelly’s stop and frisk policies — which by 2012 had risen to 685,000 stops, mostly of young black New Yorkers, virtually none of whom had committed a crime — were racially-based and unconstitutional. When Bill de Blasio succeeded Bloomberg, his attacks on Kelly and the police department became the centerpiece of his successful mayoral campaign.

So what happened? Every public figure deserves to tell his story and now Kelly tells his. Unfortunately, it is replete with half-truths, misstatements — and key omissions.

They start on the very first page, with his description of the Ohio trucker Iyman Faris and his plot in 2002 to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge. Kelly writes that his decision to station officers at the bridge was the reason Faris called off his attack. As proof, Kelly cites a coded message sent to his Al Qaeda handlers: “The weather is too hot.”

What Kelly has never acknowledged publicly — [Nor does he in Vigilance.] — is that that the NYPD had been guarding the bridge because of a tip from the FBI, which it had received from the CIA after interrogating a top Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah.

Nor has Kelly ever acknowledged that the phrase, “The weather is too hot,” came from messages stored on Faris’s computer, discovered by the FBI.

In fact, the NYPD presence at the bridge probably had nothing to do with Faris aborting his plot. According to federal officials and a Justice Dept. press release at his sentencing in Oct., 2003, Faris had attempted to obtain “gas cutters” — equipment necessary for severing the bridge's suspension cables. In several coded messages he indicated he had called off the plot because he had been unable to find them. [See NYPD Confidential, Mar. 11, 2013 and July 22, 2013.]

Kelly also writes in Vigilance that “Terrorism is theater.” Perhaps, then, fighting terrorism is theater as well. Perhaps this explains the ballyhooed arrest of Pakistani immigrant Matin Siraj on the eve of the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden. Siraj was charged with plotting to bomb the nearby Herald Square subway station.

In Vigilance Kelly omits to mention that Siraj had an IQ of 78, considered borderline intellectual functioning. Nor does he mention that the department paid $100,000 to a confidential informant 20 years Siraj’s senior, who encouraged him in the plot; nor that his co-defendant, James Elshafay, had been released from a mental institution shortly before beginning to plot with Siraj; nor that, immediately after his arrest, Elshafay became a cooperating witness and testified against Siraj.

Instead, Kelly writes only that jurors rejected Siraj’s entrapment defense and convicted him. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Intriguingly, Kelly hints at his torturous relationship with the Bureau, with dire consequences. “I had no antagonism toward the FBI, the CIA or other federal agencies, except when they behaved imperiously,” he writes in Vigilance. “I wasn’t intimidated by these people….I wasn’t in awe of anyone.”

His tough guy attitude resulted in inverted priorities: revenge and payback became more important than protecting New York City. Take the case of Det. George Corey, which Kelly does not mention. Corey was part of the team of NYPD detectives and FBI agents who arrested the radical Muslim preacher Hamsa Al Masri in London in 2004. At a joint news conference with the Bureau, Kelly singled Corey out for praise while NYPD officials provided his picture and enough personal information that reporters camped outside his house in Long Island, frightening his wife. As a result, Corey was recalled to New York. The FBI’s head of its New York office, Pat D’Amuro, stated that Kelly’s identification had led to “security concerns.” In an email to his FBI staff, D’Amuro wrote, “This is not how we do business.” [See NYPD Confidential, June 4, 2004.]

A more egregious breakdown occurred in the case of Najibullah Zazi, the Denver-based terrorist who with two high friends from Queens planned to place bombs in the subway on the anniversary of 9/11 In 2009. The FBI tracked Zazi as he drove to New York. Then, writes Kelly, the FBI asked the Port Authority police to search Zazi’s car for explosives as it approached the George Washington Bridge before entering New York City. “They asked the Port Authority, I am convinced, so that the NYPD would not be involved.”

That remark perhaps explains what happened next. Without informing the FBI, the NYPD contacted one of its informants, Imam Ahmad Wais Afzali, who alerted Zazi’s father, who alerted his son. Fortuitously, their conversation was caught on an FBI wiretap. The next day Zazi cut short his trip and returned to Denver. The FBI had to scramble, and arrested him and the others prematurely. Kelly then scapegoated Intelligence Division Deputy Inspector Paul Coirra, transferring him to the Trials Division.

In Vigilance Kelly defends contacting Afzali, saying Zazi actually aborted his plan after he was stopped by the Port Authority police [whose search inexplicably failed to turn up the explosives in Zazi’s car.] He then blames the FBI for leaking inaccurate information to the NY Times, which forced him, he writes, to transfer Coirra.

“This is an example of how a leak put out by federal law enforcement and believed willingly by the New York Times could unfairly besmirch the image of the NYPD and a police executive.”

There was no leak. These facts about Afzali were revealed in Justice Department documents issued on Sept. 20, 2009 at the time of the three arrests. NYPD Confidential reported them the next day. The Times followed two days later. [See NYPD Confidential, Sept 21, 2009.]

And since when does the police commissioner of New York City transfer someone because of a supposedly inaccurate newspaper article?

By then many people had begun to realize what Kelly’s 16 plots were about. Many plotters, like Siraj, were mentally ill, led on by NYPD undercovers.

It was also becoming clear that, as this column reported in 2011, the NYPD had spied on hundreds of Muslim mosques, schools, business groups, student groups, non-governmental organizations and individuals, targeting virtually every level of Muslim life. [See NYPD Confidential, Sept 5, 2011.] These practices were subsequently exposed in greater and wider detail by the Associated Press, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

Last year, a top city law enforcement official said of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division under Kelly: “They lay claim to any fortuitous event and create a myth around it about how clever Kelly is in keeping terrorists in check. They take credit for events and circumstances that he has no control over.”

Now let’s return to the Brooklyn Bridge, which Kelly has maintained over the years was of iconic status as a terrorist target and was therefore protected by the NYPD round the clock, 24/7.

Indeed, the NY Times headlined an article about the bridge on Apr. 26, 2011: “A Bridge Under Scrutiny by Plotters and the Police,” and described it, with patrol cars at the entry ramps and a police boat patrolling nearby in the East River, as “one of the more carefully guarded potential targets in New York,”

And yet on June 26, 2012 a graffiti artist, one “Lewy BTM,” was able to climb to one of the bridge's stanchions 119 feet over the East River and tag his name in three places. Was that also theater? [See NYPD Confidential, July 9, 2012.]

In the end what tarnished Kelly’s legacy was his own ego, his running the NYPD for 12 years as Management by Narcissism. He refused to listen to others, and took no responsibility for his misjudgments. His stated conviction of protecting the city was belied by his bitterness and vindictiveness. Like others before him, his tragedy was he had started to believe his own news clippings.

To be continued: Kelly and Bratton.


Copyright © 2015 Leonard Levitt