NYPD's classfied information vault to fight terrorism
March 25, 2008
In New York, a Turf War in the Battle Against Terrorism By Dafna Linzer
Not long after Sept. 11, 2001, as New York City began to build a counterterrorism effort to rival those of most nations, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly decided to put an end to the department's reliance on the FBI for classified data coming in from Washington.
Kelly, who was working to protect the city against another attack, wanted his own access to the stream of threat reporting concerning New York. The solution was to install a classified-information vault, like the FBI's, at the headquarters of the New York City Police Department.
Kelly made the request in the spring of 2002 and waited six years for an answer. After questions from The Washington Post for this story, the FBI said it has decided to approve the vault, a specially designed, guarded room known as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.
No other police department in the United States has responded to the threats of terrorism in quite the same way as the NYPD -- or clashed as sharply with the nation's primary counterterrorism agency, the FBI.
A thousand NYPD officers are assigned full time to operations drawing on the traditional missions of the CIA and the FBI. The department's liaison officers have been deployed from Nairobi to Singapore, while its networks of domestic informants stretch across the five boroughs of New York City.
In the past seven years, Kelly and his deputies have formed close working relationships with key intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security. The NYPD has so many native foreign-language speakers that it lends translators to the Pentagon.
But the FBI, protective of turf and disdainful of local initiative, froze Kelly's department out of two New York-related terrorism investigations, officials say. When more than 100 top police detectives joined the FBI's joint terrorism task force, they were initially not permitted to read the bureau's case files.
"People have information, and they want to control information," Kelly said in an interview at police headquarters, just five blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood. "Controlling information is power, and they don't want to let it go -- it is as fundamental as that."
Working largely on its own, the NYPD has transformed an unmarked Brooklyn warehouse into a counterterrorism center with a national and global reach. In a second facility in Manhattan, the department runs undercover operations, recruits spies and houses intelligence analysts.
Inside police headquarters is a high-tech situation room where rows of computer monitors give off a moody blue light and floor-to-ceiling television screens beam images from around the world. It is staffed 24 hours a day with officers tracking local and international threats, as well as the movements of as many as a dozen NYPD detectives on foreign assignments.
During a recent interview there, Kelly and David Cohen, the deputy commissioner for intelligence, were interrupted by a liaison officer calling from the scene of a suicide bombing in Israel to report on a new technique employed by the bomber.
Successes include the arrest in 2004 of two Muslim men on charges of plotting to blow up a subway station near the Republican National Convention, and the arrest and deportation in 2003 of two Iranian men who were filming a subway track in Queens, Cohen said. The former probe, in which one of the men pleaded guilty and the other received a 30-year prison term, was based on a year of undercover work by one of Cohen's top detectives.
"Local law enforcement is best placed to gather ground-level intelligence," said Roger Cressey, the principal deputy to the counterterrorism chief at the National Security Council from 1999 to November 2001. "Only when you combine that with what you are getting at the federal level will you create a holistic picture of the threat. NYPD has done that and is a model for other major metropolitan cities to follow."
For Kelly, the vast and pricey operation fulfills a pledge to protect the city and provide its 8 million residents with a sense of security. Kelly, a former Marine and a Customs Service chief in the Clinton administration, is serving his second stint as commissioner and often chides himself and the city for not being more aggressive after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
He said he is not prepared to rely entirely on others for the city's protection. "We just see ourselves very much at risk here, the top of the target list," he said.
Shut Out of Local Cases
In March 2003, working from information gleaned by the CIA, NYPD detectives and FBI agents investigated and then arrested a Pakistani national named Uzair Paracha. Investigators said Paracha had been working with several senior al-Qaeda suspects, including Majid Khan -- whose family lives in the Baltimore area -- on plots that included blowing up gas stations on the East Coast.
The detectives and agents learned enough to tip off the CIA to the whereabouts of Paracha's father, a businessman and alleged al-Qaeda financier who investigators said had met with Osama bin Laden. Four months after the younger Paracha's arrest, the CIA picked up Saifullah Paracha in Thailand and then secretly rendered him to a CIA prison at Bagram air base in Afghanistan.
NYPD detectives had previously been to Bagram, with Pentagon permission, to interview detainees connected to New York. But the Paracha case was treated differently. For the first time, the FBI blocked detectives from joining a bureau interrogator who was traveling to Bagram to interview the elder Paracha.
The FBI agent in charge in New York, Joe Billy, said the interrogator would brief detectives on her discoveries, but she went on extended leave after her return, according to a former NYPD official.As a result, whatever detail was extracted about the Paracha family's contacts or intentions in New York went unreported to the police, the official said.
"We wanted to send our lead detective on the case to Bagram with the FBI agent to talk to Paracha," said James Waters, a deputy commissioner and the senior ranking NYPD officer in the joint task force. But "the FBI just didn't want the NYPD there."
The ban on NYPD visits to Bagram, where hundreds of prisoners were detained by the CIA and the U.S. military, lasted two years and outraged New York detectives working on the task force, two officials recalled in interviews. By the time access was restored, Paracha had been moved to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. New York detectives interviewed him there, years after his arrest.
FBI spokesman John Miller said: "There were a number of issues and agencies involved in the Paracha case. We worked through it, and we're all fine now."
Just as the Paracha investigation was getting underway, FBI agents in Ohio were secretly questioning a Kashmiri-born truck driver named Iyman Faris. On orders from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the orchestrator of al-Qaeda's attacks against the United States, Faris plotted to help bring down the Brooklyn Bridge, prosecutors later alleged.
After two scouting trips, Faris reported back to Mohammed that security in New York was too tight to carry out the attack, prosecutors said in court documents. In May 2003, two months after Faris was secretly detained, then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft held a news conference to announce his indictment for allegedly planning an al-Qaeda attack in New York.
The NYPD was stunned -- the department had not been told about the plot or Faris's visits to New York. Although Faris was cooperating with federal agents in Ohio, the FBI in New York was not following up on his contacts in the city, where he stayed during his visits and where he might have tried to buy explosives.
For months afterward, top NYPD officials -- Michael Sheehan, an ex-Army Ranger who had served as the State Department's top counterterrorism official, and Cohen, a former deputy director of the CIA -- sought access to Faris so detectives could question him about his trips. They also wanted Faris's computer, phone and address book. They were turned away.
The Justice Department moved swiftly against Faris, and he was sentenced just six months after his arrest. By the time the NYPD finally questioned him, he was serving a 20-year sentence, claiming that his guilty plea had been an error and refusing to cooperate. "We'll never even know what we missed, what leads we might have pulled," said a senior NYPD official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid creating tensions with FBI colleagues
. Asked for comment, FBI spokesman Miller said: "We realigned the way headquarters communicates with the field offices on terrorism matters, and it's unlikely that glitch could occur today."
NYPD's Global Reach
On a whiteboard in Cohen's office at One Police Plaza is a list of locations that currently trouble him. None of them are in the United States, and few of them are noted publicly by intelligence officials or counterterrorism experts in Washington.
Working with detectives posted overseas, undercover officers in New York and informants, Cohen has identified towns in South Africa, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco that he wants NYPD officers to know. If they arrest anyone who has been to those towns, he wants to be told.
Cohen, the only person to have led the CIA's clandestine service and its analytical division, still drinks coffee out of a CIA mug. He said his work with the NYPD has given him a sense of professional freedom and accomplishment that is hard to achieve in the bureaucratized intelligence world of Washington.
A fifth of Cohen's staff was born overseas. He has 70 Arabic speakers working on counterterrorism cases, and lends some to the Defense Department and foreign intelligence agencies.
The NYPD's foreign contacts provoked early FBI complaints, particularly when the department embedded homicide detectives with Britain's Scotland Yard, Israel's Shin Bet and other overseas security services.
"The FBI had essentially a monopoly on counterterrorism work nationally, and all of a sudden this local police department shows up and is beginning to send persons around the world, is developing a system of listening posts and trip wires, and to use the most benign word I can find, they were miffed," Cohen said.
But, recently, officials in the FBI and the NYPD said the bitterness that plagued their first years after the 2001 attacks has faded. The NYPD has successfully obtained $100 million in federal funds for its counterterrorism effort.
Both departments credit the improvement to a pivotal meeting, 2 1/2 years ago, between Kelly and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III that coincided with a change in the FBI's top staff in New York.
Mark Mershan, the FBI's assistant director in charge of New York, said he and Mueller discussed whether the NYPD's practice of posting detectives overseas was harming the bureau, and decided it was not.
Mershan said senior officials at the FBI opposed giving the NYPD its own Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) because it would have allowed the department to "bypass the FBI and establish its own links with the intelligence community. Clearly that has happened anyway, so I have called David Cohen and told him that we will be pleased to certify the SCIF."
Mershan emphasized that the FBI's task force has become highly cooperative in the past several years. Last month, he signed travel orders for a bureau agent and an NYPD detective to go to the Horn of Africa to investigate a new lead in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings. "They are going together, as partners," he said.
Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.