NYPD’s Spooks Didn’t Find Two of the Most Significant Terrorists to Attempt Attacks on NYC

The AP’s Goldman and Apuzzo have another blockbuster counterterrorism article, this time describing how the NYPD has built its own intelligence service to target Muslims. It’s long, but it’s worth reading the whole thing. Keep an eye out for these key details:

  • The program in part serves to overcome CIA failures to recruit a more diverse workforce
  • The NYPD borrowed some of their community mapping techniques from Israel’s efforts in the West Bank
  • The NYPD shreds documents to keep their community mapping program secret
  • The NYPD uses informants in mosques without predication, something the FBI claims it won’t do
  • The city looked for Pakistani cab drivers with fraudulent licenses as a way to recruit informants
  • The NYPD passed information to the CIA via unofficial channels
  • A top CIA operative is working at the NYPD, while still on the CIA’s payroll

As comprehensive as this story is, it leaves out two of the program’s most significant failures. The NYPD claims that this program is successful because NY hasn’t been attacked.

For [retired CIA officer David] Cohen [who pioneered this program], there was only one way to measure success: “They haven’t attacked us,” he said in a 2005 deposition. He said anything that was bad for terrorists was good for NYPD.

Granted, Cohen made that statement in 2005.

But, first of all, it’s no longer true that “they haven’t attacked us.” The Faisal Shahzad attempt last year may have been unsuccessful, but it is an example of an attack launched with international support.Yet neither the NYPD (nor, for that matter, the FBI) had any clue about Shahzad before he attacked.

That may be perfectly understandable for the NYPD. After all, Shahzad lived in Connecticut. He used a hawala (the guy who ran it just signed a plea deal), but that was in Long Island, not the City. So the few hints that Shahzad might attack were outside of NYPD’s jurisdiction. The AP article notes the NYPD’s spooks operate far outside of the city, but in any case, the failure to identify Shahzad shows how much will remain hidden even from the NYPD’s invasive approach.

The case of Najibullah Zazi is still more problematic.

The NYPD had infiltrated Zazi’s mosque in NY, which was the focus of his conspiracy. They even used the Imam there, Ahmad Wais Afzali, as an informant. Yet they appear to have had no advance warning that Zazi and two friends from NY were training for an attack (the FBI is reported to have gotten their first lead on Zazi from the Pakistanis).

In other words, all the activity described in the AP piece included Zazi’s immediate circle of associates. Yet that activity apparently failed to identify Zazi as a threat.

Even worse, the NYPD’s confidence in Afzali compromised the FBI’s case. After the FBI tipped of the NYPD, the NYPD tried to develop its own leads. That included showing Afzali a picture of Zazi, which led Afzali to call Zazi’s father and then Zazi himself to warn them of the investigation.

Media reports quoting anonymous FBI officials have suggested the NYPD botched the case when it showed a picture of Najibullah Zazi, the Denver shuttle-bus driver at the heart of the investigation, to Ahmed Afzali, a Queens Imam and sometime police informant. Afzali, the reports say, first called Zazi’s father Mohammed, then Najibullah himself, alerting them to the probe. The FBI, which had been monitoring the calls, was then forced to move immediately to arrest the Zazis — much sooner than it had planned.

[snip]

When Zazi traveled to New York ahead of the anniversary of 9/11, the FBI as a precaution alerted the NYPD. That’s when officers from the NYPD’s intelligence unit consulted Afzali. “It looks like they did this on their own initiative — they really trusted this Imam,” says the law-enforcement official. “But if they’d consulted with the bureau first, they’d have been told not to talk to anybody.”

The NYPD spoke to Afzali three times after they were tipped off to the investigation.

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 [Afzali’s lawyer] 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.

In addition, it appears that the NYPD shared information on the Zazi investigation with cops who did not have clearance.

Four NYPD detectives have been hauled before a federal grand jury probing leaks of top-secret information about a terror plot to blow up city subways, sources told the Daily News.

[snip]

The inquiry is said to be focusing on leaks of sensitive information from the FBI-NYPD Joint Terrorism Task Force to cops who did not have clearance.

Some of the information ended up in the press.

(Read that entire article for a sense of how Ray Kelly has retaliated against those who might expose the abuses and failures of his intelligence division.)

In short, not only did this elite intelligence unit not find the one guy who has actually attacked NYC, but it significantly endangered the investigation into another terrorist who came close to attacking NYC.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

8 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    The CIA/NYPD domestic terrorist surveillance program’s genesis began when Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor John O. Brennan was working as George Tenet’s deputy executive director of the CIA (March 2001) and continued through the periods when Brennan notably was director of the newly created Terrorist Threat Integration Center (2003 to 2004) and then as the director of the National Counterterrorism Center (2004-2005).

    If as the AP report states that the CIA/NYPD domestic terrorist surveillance program was put in place with the approval of then CIA Director George Tenet and his most senior staff, it would defy belief that John Brennan himself has not been personally involved in this violation of the law against CIA operating domestically.

    Sometimes buried bodies don’t stay buried, do they?

    But since it was the just the bipartisan-supported domestic arm of the GWOT, nobody is going to remark on this suddenly unburied body.

  2. rugger9 says:

    Whether it was CIA or the NYPD doing it is irrelevant, inasmuch as the actions and surveillance were illegal, period. The domestic CIA spying is just another brick in that wall, and something that has gone on from its beginning.

    It is doubtful that any court will hold the USG accountable in any way, especially over the next couple of months.

  3. Gitcheegumee says:

    O/T…maybe??

    WASHINGTON — New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on Tuesday was kicked off the committee leading the 50-state task force charged with probing foreclosure abuses and negotiating a possible settlement agreement with the nation’s five largest mortgage firms, according to an email reviewed by The Huffington Post.

    Schneiderman was one of roughly a dozen state attorneys general leading the talks with the five companies, alongside representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other federal agencies. The government launched the negotiations in the spring after widespread reports of foreclosure irregularities, such as so-called “robo-signing” and illegal home seizures, emerged.

    But state prosecutors and federal officials are pressing to complete a proposed settlement with the five companies even though they’ve initiated only a limited investigation that hasn’t examined the full extent of the alleged wrongdoing, The Huffington Post reported last month. Elizabeth Warren, who until recently was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, told a congressional panel last month that government agencies may not have sufficiently investigated claims that borrowers’ homes were illegally seized.

    Schneiderman, a Democrat who’s in his first term as New York’s top law enforcer, has been among a group of state legal officers who has also questioned the desire for a speedy resolution. He’s leading his own investigation into mortgage improprieties, subpoenaing documents from the nation’s largest financial institutions and reviewing court records for possible illegal home repossessions.

    Read more: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/23/new-york-attor

  4. klynn says:

    “The NYPD borrowed some of their community mapping techniques from Israel’s efforts in the West Bank”

    This jumped out at me. Is this the only practice “borrowed”? It would be important to track this and find out who it leads back to…

  5. spy vs spy says:

    … but it significantly endangered the investigation into another terrorist who came close to attacking NYC.

    didn’t the cheney / bush admin do something very similar by having somebody arrested while another country’s intelligence service had him under surveillance / was tracking him? cannot remember if it was in the UK or Eastern Europe – maybe Pakistan – but the end result was yes, the usa got the guy but screwed up the bigger investigation. what is it with the Big Foot approach??? sheesh

  6. emptywheel says:

    @spy vs spy: It was the British investigation into the liquid explosive plot–the one that led to us having to keep 3 oz bottles of shampoo.

    Either bc we were scared or bc we wanted a terror scare for teh 2006 election, we had the Pakistanis round up Rashid Rauf (oddly enough, the guy who ordred Zazi to do what he did). After the Pakistanis did it alerted Rauf’s operatives in the UK, so they had to be roudned up, in a few cases before there was sufficient evidence. They had to try that case 3 times to get convictions, thanks to Cheney’s bigfooting.

  7. matthew carmody says:

    In September 2002, Bloomberg approved a board to advise New York’s Bravest, the Fire Dept., on terrorism preparedness which consisted of James Woolsey, former Director, CIA and Shabtai Shavit, former head of Mossad, in addition to Dr. Joshua Lederberg, a specialist in infectious diseases and bioweapons, and George Canavan, a physicist assigned to Los Alamos.

    CIA has always had a presence with police departments in major US cities along with active military intelligence unit personnel some of whom were reservists activated secretly while continuing to work for their civilian agencies.

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