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The NYPD’s Divisive Intelligence Division

September 28, 2009

No one in New York City, and arguably in the nation, has done more to combat terrorism than Ray Kelly.

Since returning as New York City Police Commissioner four months after the 9/11 attacks, he has made fighting terrorism his mission, creating a Counter-Terrorism Division, revamping the department’s Intelligence Division, and marching the department past its traditional boundaries, both physical and legal.

He has stationed detectives overseas in terrorism hotspots. He has also publicized the importance of the “homegrown” threat.

No question, he has made New York City safer. President Obama expressed his “appreciation and admiration” for Kelly’s anti-terrorism efforts following the arrests of three Afghan-born terrorism-related suspects.

Yet despite these accomplishments and successes, elements of Kelly’s personality sometimes hamper his fight against terrorism.

Like most top law enforcements officials, he has an outsized ego and sense of his importance. He is as controlling as former mayor Rudy Giuliani, who dismissed him as commissioner in 1994 and whom Kelly increasingly resembles.

He also remains bitter and unforgiving towards those he feels have slighted or wronged him. His bitterness runs so deep that he sometimes seems to shape policies — even measures against terrorism — through his prism of resentments.

This is perhaps most apparent in his dealings with the FBI, which, he and others feel, failed to protect New York City from the terrorists’ attacks on 9/11.

As Kelly put it shortly after returning as police commissioner: “We have to protect ourselves.”

Until the FBI took the unprecedented step of bringing Joe Demarest out of retirement last year to head its New York office because he gets along with Kelly, the commissioner had gone out of his way to publicly criticize and ridicule the Bureau.

Take the anonymous quote that appeared in the New York Post in 2003 that the FBI “couldn’t pick out a Yemeni from a Palestinian.” FBI officials believed the quote came from Kelly.

To set the department on its own course, Kelly hired a former top CIA operative, David Cohen, to head the NYPD’s Intelligence Division.

While detectives in the Counter-Terrorism Bureau work alongside FBI agents through the Joint [FBI-NYPD] Terrorism Task Force, the Intelligence Division operates independently of the Bureau.

It has conducted out of state investigations — where the NYPD has no legal authority — without informing either local authorities or the FBI.

It has refused, despite two court decisions, to turn over documents related to its spying on political groups before the 2004 Republican National convention.

With Mayor Michael Bloomberg distancing himself from department matters, Kelly and Cohen have run the Intelligence Division with no civilian oversight and with no accountability to the public.

A former top department official recently described Intel, as it is referred to inside the department, as “a mini-CIA” within a municipal agency, without the safeguards to ensure that it does not break the law.

Despite Obama’s recent praise for the NYPD in its anti-terrorism fight, it became apparent last week that something had gone awry inside the Intelligence Division.

Under the guise of protecting the city, Intel appeared to have disrupted an FBI investigation into perhaps the most serious terrorism threat to New York City since 9/11.

Apparently without informing the Bureau, which had been tracking terrorism suspect Najibullah Zazi since he returned from an al Qaeda training camp in Pakistan a year ago, Intel detectives showed his photo to one of their informants, a Queens imam, Ahmad Wais Afzali.

The imam then tipped off Zazi, who cut short his trip to New York and flew home to Colorado the next day, short-circuiting the FBI’s investigation.

The Bureau was forced to prematurely arrest him, his father and Afzali, before learning the full extent of the plot.

A second former top NYPD official said that the question is not whether the NYPD made a mistake in judgment by showing Zazi’s photo to Afzali but whether the Intelligence Division acted on its own in contacting its informant, a decision that defied protocol and common sense.

Some officials question whether the Intelligence Division’s real reason in going to Afzali was not merely to obtain information but to outplay the Bureau, as it did after the 2004 Madrid train bombings when Intel detectives, on Cohen’s orders, rushed to interview Spanish authorities before the FBI did.

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If this was true in the Zazi case, the city’s safety and national security were compromised because of ego and old grudges.

An indication of the mess is that no senior official from either the FBI or the NYPD has been talking for the record about the case.

Kelly in particular, who rarely shies away from publicity when discussing terrorism, has been noticeably restrained in his comments. On Friday he ducked a scheduled appearance for the Police Athletic League, knowing reporters were there to question him.

Police sources say the decision to go to Afzali “came from the top.”

That means Cohen — and probably Kelly, since no decision, no matter how trivial, occurs in the NYPD without his approval. That is no hyperbole. Kelly’s micro-managing is such that in the NYPD’s 35,000-member force not even a promotion or transfer occurs without his permission.

In the Intelligence Division, the chain of command runs from Cohen to Deputy Chief Thomas Galati to Deputy Inspector Paul Ciorra, a former Street Crime cop and Iraq war veteran with extensive terrorism knowledge.

A police source called Ciorra “a hard worker, an excellent investigator, and a loyal employee. But loyalty and hard work only go so far when the people above have to protect themselves.”

On September 17, police sources say that Kelly transferred Ciorra 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 demotion or, in department parlance, “a dump.”

The day after The New York Times suggested that Ciorra had been made a scapegoat for the mistakes of Intel’s higher-ups, Kelly transferred him again — this time to the position of commanding officer of the Highway Unit — a full Inspector’s position, suggesting a future promotion.

In this, Kelly’s actions resemble those he took against Assistant Chief Thomas Purtell. As head of the Special Operations Division in 2003, Purtell oversaw the Emergency Service Unit, whose officers threw a flash grenade into the apartment of a 57-year-old Harlem woman during a drug raid.

The woman, Alberta Spruill, suffered a fatal heart attack. Amid the outcry, Kelly transferred Purtell to the Housing Bureau, although he had not been part of the raid — another obvious dump. Five months later, Kelly quietly reassigned him to the prestigious post of Bronx borough commander.

Police sources say that transferring Ciorra took the onus off Galati, a Cohen favorite.

Or, as another former police official, referring to Ciorra, put it: “Maybe the guillotine was aimed a little too low.”

Two years ago at Cohen’s direction, Galati delayed the Iranian delegation to the United Nations at Kennedy airport for 40 minutes by searching them for weapons — violating diplomatic protocol and disregarding protests from the officials of the State Department, Secret Service and the Port Authority police who were at the scene. Only after a Port Authority official contacted the NYPD’s Chief of Department Joe Esposito were the Iranians permitted to leave for Manhattan.

As for dumping Cohen over the Zazi blunder, that would be too obvious an admission of an NYPD screw up. Besides, Kelly doesn’t dismiss his top officials — no matter how poorly they perform.

He may be a billionaire who cites education as his singular achievement, but our Mayor Michael Bloomberg still can’t speak English.

Asked about the Ciorra transfer, Bloomberg was quoted by the Associated Press, saying that high-level personnel decisions made by Commissioner Kelly are "between he and I."

Better hit the grammar books, Mayor Mike. Correct English is “between him and me.”

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