Huffpost New York
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Len Levitt Headshot

A Failure to Communicate

Posted: Updated:

There is more cause for concern about the NYPD's Lone Cowboy behavior the more we learn about the department's dealings with the Queens imam who jeopardized the investigation into the most serious threat to national security since 9/11.

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.

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.

The police kept the FBI in the dark about their meetings with Imam Afzali even as Bureau agents were tracking Zazi's movements in early September, 2009, from Denver, where he worked, back to his old neighborhood in Queens for an expected rendezvous with alleged cohorts to carryout suicide bombings on Manhattan subway lines.

We learn these further disturbing facts about the NYPD's go-it-alone actions from Afzali's appearance last week in Brooklyn federal court, where he was ordered to permanently leave the United States for lying about his phone calls to Zazi, and from an interview the imam gave to the New York Times. The general accuracy of his statements to the Times was confirmed to this reporter by Afzali's attorney, Ron Kuby.

The NYPD's freelancing apparently began when an Intelligence Division detective of its top secret Special Services Unit -- identified in government documents as Dan Sirakowsky -- telephoned Afzali on Sept. 10, a day before the eighth anniversary of the Trade Center attacks.

Afzali had been Sirakowsky's confidential informant, or C.I., since 9/11.

Sirakowsky told Afzali the department needed to speak to him right away. Minutes after the phone call, a detective and a sergeant showed up at Afzali's home with pictures of Zazi and three of his alleged accomplices.

According to Kuby, Afzali recognized Zazi and two others. They had been students in Afzali's mosque class years before. The police then asked Afzali to find out more about what the three were up to in the city.

Afzali said the police never told him that that the three were plotting a terrorist attack.

Afzali said he tracked down Zazi and his father by phone, and met with one of the other two men.

"Throughout the day, at least three times," the Times reported, "Afzali called the police to share what he had learned, he said. Each time, he was asked to find out more."

Yet did the NYPD share what Afzali told them about Zazi with the FBI? Had they informed the FBI they had gone to question Afzali with the pictures of Zazi and his alleged cohorts in the first place? It appears they did not.

Apparently, the Bureau only learned of the NYPD's contacts with Afzali through court-approved telephone wiretaps on Zazi and his father.

Alerted by the imam about the NYPD's interest in him, Zazi cut short his trip to New York and flew back the next day to Denver, short-circuiting the FBI's investigation.

Agents were forced to scramble and prematurely arrest him.

In light of the NYPD's repeated contacts with Afzali on September 10th, we now ask the following:

Question One: How did NYPD Intelligence Division detectives learn about Zazi and his subway plot? Where did they get the pictures of Zazi and his alleged accomplices?

Presumably, this information came from the Joint Terrorism Task Force [JTTF], the body comprised of NYPD detectives and FBI agents.

However, sources say, there is virtually no contact between detectives in the NYPD's Intelligence Division and detectives in the JTTF.

This suggests that it was a high-ranking NYPD official who shared the Zazi information with Intel.

According to the 2009 official NYPD roster, the commanding officer of the Joint Terrorism Task Force on the NYPD side is Assistant Chief James Waters. At least on paper, he reports to the Deputy Commissioner of Counter-Terrorism, the departing Richard Falkenrath, who reports to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

There is also a wall of distrust and envy between the FBI and the higher-ups of NYPD's Intelligence Division. The Intelligence Division, which is headed by the former CIA operative David Cohen, operates in its own orbit with its own rules.

Since his appointment in 2002, Cohen has often circumvented the FBI. 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.

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.

Question Two: Who authorized the Intel officers to show those picture to Imam Afzali?

Question Three: What previous information had Afzali provided to the NYPD that had made him trustworthy enough that it would share sensitive photos with him about the most threatening bomb plot on U.S. soil since 9/11?

Question Four: Why didn't the NYPD tell the FBI that they were planning to show the suspects' pictures to the imam?

Question Five: Why didn't the NYPD inform the FBI that Intel detectives had had at least three separate conversations with Afzali about Zazi after showing those pictures?

Question Six: Was a decision made to specifically not inform the Bureau?

The public deserves answers to these questions but under our current leadership, both local and federal, it will probably not get them.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has given Kelly more power than any other police commissioner in the city's history. Kelly operates with no oversight or accountability, least of all from City Hall.

Yet as knowledgeable and as pro-active as Kelly has been in fighting terrorism, he has an Achilles heel, a flaw that invalidates his intelligence and dedication.

His ego is such he cannot share power with other law enforcement agencies. He feels he must be in command. As evidenced by the Zazi case, that can be a dangerous to New York City.

Although FBI agents were reportedly furious over the NYPD's actions concerning Zazi, neither FBI Director Robert Mueller nor the Bureau's top gun in New York, Joe Demarest, has publicly questioned those actions.

Ditto President Obama, who after Zazi's arrest called Kelly to congratulate him and the NYPD.

Do Bloomberg, Mueller and the President think that by looking the other way and keeping their mouths shut, they are ensuring New York's safety?

Shouldn't these critical questions be addressed by someone in authority to avert a future catastrophe?