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NYPD's voice loud and clear

October 14, 2005

So what are we to make of the head of the FBI's New York office holding a news conference with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to warn of a terror threat against the subways while the Department of Homeland Security downplays the threat's credibility?

While the feds can't agree on what to say, the voice of the NYPD rings loud and clear. It is Kelly's voice. Regardless of how difficult he may be to work with - note previous columns about his rebuke by the FBI's former New York head Pasquale D'Amuro and Kelly's shabby treatment of his own detectives - Kelly's words reverberate through and rattle the highest levels of the nation's anti-terror agencies.

Did Kelly prematurely frighten the public while deploying thousands of cops into the subways on overtime? Did he cry wolf before Homeland Security proved correct and the threat was discounted? Could his news conference have been timed to obscure Bloomberg's refusal to debate Democratic mayoral opponent Fernando Ferrer at the Apollo Theater, as Ferrer's supporters have suggested? Perhaps.

Nonetheless, of the half-dozen federal and local law enforcement officials contacted by Newsday, all maintain Kelly acted appropriately.

Former first deputy John Timoney, head of the Miami police department, said, "Not only did Kelly and Bloomberg do the right thing, not to do what they did would have been negligent."

Let's turn now to last week's news conference with Kelly, Bloomberg and the FBI's Mark Mershon.

An FBI official who asked for anonymity said Mershon's attendance was unrelated to the threat's credibility. Rather, the official said, the NYPD informed the bureau it would hold the news conference on its own, describing the threat.

And, said the official, Mershon, whose agency has been criticized for withholding vital information from the NYPD, felt he could not be in the position of not attending.

Jack Cloonan, a former senior bureau agent with the Osama bin Laden investigation, told Newsday: "Even if there are serious doubts in Mershon's mind or in the bureau's as to the credibility of the threat, the FBI today wants to be seen as cooperating with local officials. The bureau cannot afford to take issue with the city and NYPD - at least not publicly."

OK, now what about Homeland Security? More specifically, what does it do that the FBI doesn't?

Formed in part because of the FBI's poor 9/11 performance, its functions appear duplicative of the FBI's. Information sharing is paramount, said Brian Doyle, a spokesman for Homeland Security. One of Homeland Security's duties, he said, is to ensure that terror threats are passed to local authorities.

But doesn't the FBI's Joint Terrorist Task Force do just that?

So how come no one from Homeland Security turned up at last week's news conference? Was Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff even invited?

Doyle could not provide an answer. Instead, he said: "There is no conflict. We applaud what they did. They have a robust intelligence-gathering operation. Ours is more robust. Two people can look at the same information and come to different conclusions. Our interpretation was different."

Lastly, we return to the NYPD, which on its own is fighting terrorism both at home and overseas.

Says Cloonan: "The NYPD sees itself as guarding the security of the five boroughs as an international police force. Their attitude is, 'We will take all the information you give us, but we are going to determine what are our best interests.'"

The NYPD now competes rather than works with the FBI and CIA. A former anti-terrorism official told Newsday: "There is a standing joke that when Friday prayers at the Al Farooq mosque in Brooklyn ends, the NYPD's informants and the FBI's informants are bumping into each other as they leave."

Overseas, says the anti-terrorism official, a memorandum of understanding is being drawn up between the NYPD and the CIA. The irony is that the NYPD's overseas efforts are funded by private contributions because there is no overseas mandate for the department in the City Charter.

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© 2005 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.