Hell Freezes Over: Are The Feds Actually Cooperating With The NYPD In Counterterrorism?

By Tommy Brown

A piece from Newsweek on the recent arrest of a mope planning to set off a bomb in NYC:

This, according to these same [NYPD and FBI] officials, is what the countdown looked like:

It is Wednesday, Sept. 9, two days before the anniversary of 9/11 and just five days before Obama is scheduled to make a major speech on Wall Street, only a few hundred yards from Ground Zero. A week after that, the U.N. General Assembly will be in full session, with some 150 heads of state gridlocking Manhattan. And now the FBI tells the NYPD it’s concerned about the activities of this guy, Najibullah Zazi, whom agents have been watching for months in Colorado. The Feds have good reason to believe he’s been trained in bombmaking in Pakistan. They say they know he’s been stockpiling the same kind of chemical components—hydrogen peroxide and acetone—used to concoct the explosives used in the horrific London subway bombings in 2005. Over the past few days surveillance suggests he’s not only been cooking them up, he’s allegedly been calling friends to make sure he gets the mixture just right. The New York City connection? He was brought up in Queens in a neighborhood long known to be full of Taliban supporters. And at this moment he is in a rental car headed east. The FBI is watching him. The bureau normally works with more than 100 NYPD detectives in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, but on this one it wants Cohen’s Intelligence Division working the case, too.

Now this is how domestic counterterrorism is supposed to work. “Breaking down stovepipes” and all that, actually sharing intel instead of engaging in the usual law enforcement agency pissing matches over jurisdiction or credit for the collar.

A couple of years ago, that kind of cooperation didn’t exist. After Police Commissioner Ray Kelly reorganized the force in the wake of 9/11 and brought in Cohen, the Intelligence Division had an extremely rocky relationship with the FBI field office. Cohen’s detectives focus on preventing new attacks, not pulling together cases for prosecution after the fact, which is what FBI agents traditionally have been tasked to do. The NYPD intelligence unit works undercover and gathers human intelligence in New York City, in the wider United States, and even overseas. FBI agents, used to believing they have a monopoly on that kind of work, wanted to keep it, and the infighting was legendary.

Despite all that, FBI Director Robert Mueller—who has tried to shift the FBI law-enforcement culture from after-the-fact prosecution toward more aggressive measures to prevent terrorism—has developed a good working relationship with Kelly. And since Joseph Demarest took over as the head of the FBI field office in New York late last year, according to law-enforcement officials, cooperation on the ground has improved dramatically. One of those officials says that the FBI has worked closely with the NYPD intel detectives on more than two dozen important cases in the past several months.

“An extremely rocky relationship” is a very very mild way of putting it concerning the interactions of the NYPD and FBI. Even before 9/11, the rivalry and contempt between “the Feebs” and the “local yokels” was the stuff of legend. In the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which was tasked with Al Qaeda investigations worldwide before 9/11, the federal agents constantly short-shrifted the NYPD detectives on cases or treated them like gofers.

After 9/11, Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly were so incensed at the lack of federal cooperation (and lack of federal counterterrorism funds) in the city that is the biggest terrorist target on the planet that they literally created their own CIA and a sort of municipal hybrid of the FBI and Britain’s MI-5.

The Intelligence Division sent detectives all over the country and even the world to sniff out plots against NYC before they had a chance to become operational. The fact that the Deputy Commissioner for the Intel Division is the former head of the CIA’s clandestine service says it all. The CT Divsion was focused on preemptive action and rolling up terrorist networks in the city, using the kind of preemptive action that the FBI had a deep institutional aversion to (and with good reason, but that’s another story).

It’s Sept. 11. FBI agents and Intelligence Division detectives meeting that morning believe they have a good handle on the Zazi case. They have found this source, Afzali, who knows quite a lot about Zazi and his friends. The suspect is under surveillance, and a warrant has been obtained to search his rental car and the laptop inside. Then word comes that a phone call has been intercepted from someone telling Mohammed Zazi the cops are asking about his son. The name of the caller is not the one the cops have been using. The top Intelligence Division detective at the meeting steps out of the room to phone his office and check. Yeah, that’s Afzali, he says when he comes back in.

The next day, Saturday, Najibullah Zazi is on a plane back to Denver, and there are a lot of loose ends. How much of a network was Zazi involved with? (“You study these things and they get bigger, then smaller, then bigger—like an accordion,” as one veteran counterterrorism analyst puts it.) Where are the explosives or their components? No one seems to know.

On Wednesday the 16th, the FBI in Denver began questioning Zazi directly. His father was brought in as well, and Afzali was picked up in New York. On Saturday the 19th all three men were charged with allegedly lying to federal officers. On Sept. 24, Najibullah Zazi was indicted for conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction.

The investigation continues. More than 120 detectives from the NYPD Intelligence Division remain assigned to the case.

With the (almost entirely true) horror stories about the dearth of actual domestic security against these kind of threats, this pitch-perfect CT investigation ending in the roll-up of most of the cell before they could achieve their explosive aims is quite heartening. In fact, one may notice that the Department of Homeland Security did not seem to be involved in this investigation in any way, which speaks volumes about their effectiveness.

Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a golden era of cooperation between the NYPD Intel detectives  and the federales . Given the traditional Bureau disdain for the CIA and spook types in general (the saying goes, “FBI catches bank robbers for a living; CIA robs banks”), I wouldn’t hold my breath. While I would love to believe that all the stuff about the two agencies playing nice is as rosy as this article portrays, both the Bureau and the NYPD have a reputation for snowballing the media for positive press coverage.

Oh yeah, one more thing. The lead sentence of the article:

“The ticking bomb” is a cliché in movies about cops and spies and terrorists, but sometimes in real life, with real terrorists, it’s the real deal.

This was not a ticking time bomb scenario. This was rolling up a network before they could become operational.

Please stop it Newsweek. There is no reason to give the Jack Bauer counterterrorism crowd more ammunition for their fallacious arguments.

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