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April 26, 2010

Washington Post


NYPD Intelligence making FBI blue

The body of the last Pakistani terrorist was hardly cold in November 2008 when representatives of the New York Police Department’s intelligence unit showed up in Mumbai.

“We’re from the U.S. government,” they told Indian security officials, according to a senior former U.S. intelligence official who now does private business in the country.

The Indians were left confused by who exactly was representing American intelligence in Mumbai, he said. Was it the CIA, FBI, or these men who said they were from “the U.S. government”?

The incident could not be independently verified, although NYPD chief Raymond W. Kelly was not shy about telling a congressional panel later that “within hours of the end of the attacks, the NYPD notified the Indian government that we would be sending personnel there.”

“By December 5," he added, "our Intelligence Division had produced an analysis, which we shared with the FBI.”

The FBI was not all that grateful, according to several former bureau and CIA sources.

Indeed, tension between the FBI and the NYPD’s intelligence division has only deepened since then, according to a lacerating analysis by a veteran New York crime reporter.“There is … a wall of distrust and envy between the FBI and the higher-ups of NYPD’s Intelligence Division," Leonard Levitt wrote last week on his blog, NYPD Confidential.

The cause: “freelancing” by NYPD Intelligence, from Mumbai and London, where its detectives have conducted their own investigations into terrorist plots, to Queens, where they nearly derailed a domestic terrorism investigation, according to Levitt, buttressed by other sources.

“The Intelligence Division, which is headed by the former CIA operative David Cohen, operates in its own orbit with its own rules,” wrote Levitt, author last year of “NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country's Greatest Police Force.”

Cohen spent most of his career in the intelligence directorate, where he was known as a hardnosed manager and gained a measure of notoriety for writing a report, later dismissed by an internal CIA review, that blamed the Soviets for the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. He briefly headed the agency’s Directorate of Operations, the DO, in the mid-1990s.

“Since his appointment [to the NYPD] in 2002, Cohen has often circumvented the FBI,” Levitt wrote.

“This column has long reported on Cohen’s penchant for sending Intel detectives on out-of-state investigations, where the NYPD has no legal jurisdiction, without informing the Bureau, as well as his and Kelly’s stationing Intel detectives overseas to rival the FBI,” Levitt added.

“In addition, both Cohen and Kelly have gone out of their way to publicly disparage the FBI. Both have stated they do not trust the FBI to protect the city from terrorism, that the NYPD must go it alone.”

Paul J. Browne, the NYPD’s chief spokesman, dismissed Levitt’s comments out of hand.

“Our relations, including David Cohen's, with the FBI is [sic] excellent,” Browne said by e-mail on Friday. “That kills those who wish it was otherwise.”

Asked who would “wish” bad relations on the FBI and NYPD, Browne said, “the scribe you're quoting.” He called Levitt “simply malicious.”

Levitt called Browne’s response “typical — he won’t answer my specific questions.”

An FBI spokesman declined to comment on “a journalist’s comment.”

From 1995 to 2005, Levitt‘s “One Police Plaza” column for the Long Island newspaper Newsday was must reading inside the NYPD itself. Before Newsday, Levitt was a reporter with the Associated Press and the Detroit News.

Levitt’s critical analysis focused on the role of NYPD intelligence operatives in trying to disrupt a terrorist attack on the New York subway last year. Zarein Ahmedzay, a New York City taxi driver, and Najibullah Zazi, a Denver airport shuttle bus driver, eventually pleaded guilty, saying senior al-Qaeda leaders ordered them to carry out the plot.

Levitt called the NYPD operatives’ handling of their informant in the case, a Queens imam, as “Lone Cowboy behavior” that “jeopardized the investigation into the most serious threat to national security since” the Sept. 11, 2001, plot.

“It now appears that the NYPD spoke with Imam Ahmad Wais Afzali not once, as has been reported, but at least three times, urging him to spy on suspects in a plot to blow up New York City subways,” Levitt wrote. “And the police apparently did this without informing their own partners in the terrorism investigation — the FBI.”

“The result: Instead of helping the investigation, the NYPD’s meddling led the imam to warn ringleader Najibullah Zazi that authorities were on to him, short-circuiting the crucial evidence-gathering surveillance and forcing the FBI to make arrests prematurely.”

NYPD spokesman Browne refused to answer a half dozen questions about the NYPD’s handling of the imam, saying “the assumptions of the questions … are false and as such not answerable.”

“The NYPD and FBI worked closely on Zazi and knew what each other was doing along the way,” Browne declared.

A former senior CIA counterterrorism official said Cohen “was not held in high regard by the DO ... because he was not an operator and had never served in the field.”

Even so, the former official expressed sympathy for the NYPD Intelligence detectives.

“Cohen aside, and bad NYPD tradecraft notwithstanding, I understand the frustration the cops feel,” the ex-CIA official said, on condition of anonymity in exchange for speaking freely about a sensitive issue.

“There are glaciers sliding into the sea faster than the FBI moves sometimes. And, God knows, the NYPD has learned the hard way that CIA is not necessarily going to do its job and provide the requisite warning of a pending attack.”

By Jeff Stein  |  April 26, 2010; 1:30 PM ET

Email Leonard Levitt at llevitt@nypdconfidential.com