NYPD intelligence detectives go their own way
By Jeff Stein
Time was, 35 years ago, when the CIA had virtually no legislative oversight, no worries about congressional intelligence committees tracking its budgets or asking embarrassing questions.
Today, members of the Senate and House intelligence committees say they still too often find themselves learning about questionable CIA practices from the media. Congress recently passed legislation to tighten up oversight.
But there is still one important American intelligence organization over which neither they nor any other legislative body conducts meaningful oversight: the NYPD intelligence division’s International Liaison Program.
With offices in 11 foreign capitals and an unpublished budget, the ILP’s far-flung counterterrorism cops operate outside the authority of top U.S. officials abroad, including the American ambassador and the CIA station chief, who is the nominal head of U.S. intelligence in foreign countries.
Neither the Director of National Intelligence nor the Department of Homeland Security have any jurisdiction over the program. Nor have either done a study of how the NYPD’s foreign operations fit into U.S. counterterrorism programs — or don’t, officials say.
The ILP is supported by private donors through the New York Police Foundation, which won’t say how much it has given the NYPD, beyond a sentence on its Web page that it sought to raise $1.5 million for the program in 2010. The NYPD itself won’t say whether any of its annual $68 million budget for intelligence and counterterrorism goes to posting detectives in Paris, London, Madrid or other posh capitals.
Even the New York City Council member responsible for police oversight, Democrat Peter F. Vallone, Jr. admits he doesn’t know much about the ILP — starting with its full budget.
Asked whether it was “fair to say” he had no idea of what the ILP was spending, he responded, “that’s fair. But my main concern is their use of taxpayer funds here in NYC.”
Even if Vallone wanted to ride herd on the ILP, he said, his Public Safety Committee has only four staffers to monitor the entire, 34,500-strong police department.
The NYPD asserts it can police itself.
“The NYPD has an assistant commissioner who is responsible specifically for the supervision of overseas officers,” NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said. “He does inspections overseas, and like other managers in the Intelligence Division reviews all spending or reimbursement, regardless of source, as does our budget personnel. And like any other officers, those overseas are subject to reviews and investigations of the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau.”
The foundation is not always transparent about its expenses. Last month it turned out that it had picked up Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s $12,000 tab at the New York Harvard Club for the past eight years and paid a public relations agency $400,000 to burnish his image.
In effect, critics say, no one outside the NYPD or foundation has any idea whether its foreign liaison officers in, say, Paris, are washing down their snails with a very fine Lafite Rothschild, or, as one former NYPD counterterrorism official insists, downing Bud Lights with Le Big Mac.
“There’s not any indication they’re eating snails, but when it comes to these kinds of agencies,” Vallone admits, “snails can be hidden in a lot of places.”
“There appears to be no monitoring of the NYPD, a municipal agency that in its anti-terrorism measures, has become a mini-CIA,” maintains Leonard Levitt, a longtime former Newsday police reporter and author of “NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country’s Greatest Police Force.”
“There are no safeguards to ensure that the NYPD doesn’t break the law. So far as I know, there are no mechanisms in place to ensure that the NYPD does not become a rogue organization,” said Levitt, who broke the story about Kelly’s Harvard Club dues on his blog.
Thomas V. Fuentes, who headed the FBI’s Office of International Operations from 2004 until his retirement in November 2008, calls the ILP “a complete waste of money.”
“But it looks great, looks really terrific,” he scoffs.
Fuentes, echoing views commonly held by current and former FBI and CIA officials, ticks off the limitations of New York’s overseas police intelligence operatives.
“They’re not a member of the country team, they don’t have the top secret clearances and equipment to receive or send classified information. The countries they’re in, they’re there on tourist passports. They live in hotels or apartments.” Their out-of-channels status makes them virtually useless to other intelligence or police agencies, both U.S. and foreign, Fuentes argues.
If one of those agencies “wants to pass along sensitive or classified information that pertains to the safety of New York City, they can’t give it to one of these guys,” he said. “They don’t have the security clearances to receive classified material, they don’t have the storage facility to store it and they don’t have an NSA-approved communications method to send it. So the countries don’t give it to them.”
Fuentes wonders why Kelly and his intelligence chief, former CIA official David Cohen, have deployed cops abroad at untold expense when the NYPD already has about 100 members embedded in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, who are authorized to share classified information with cleared officers in their department.
“They have top secret clearances, they see everything, they see all the sensitive material that’s reported by the CIA or FBI or other sources that’s coming in to the U.S., especially New York,” he says of the JTTF members. “They already get that.”
It hasn’t always been that way, as the 9/11 Commission found in abundance. And as the David Headley and Detroit underwear bomber case showed, the intelligence agencies still have problems sharing information.
Cohen and Kelly have not been shy about their antipathy for the U.S. intelligence community in general and the FBI specifically, saying the former has demonstrated it can’t protect New York and accusing the latter of withholding valuable information.
“Cohen, a veteran of the federal government, knew his plan [to station cops abroad] was certain to irritate the CIA, FBI, and the Department of State in one fell swoop,” John G. Comiskey, an NYPD lieutenant, wrote in a paper for the Naval Postgraduate School earlier this year. “Cohen wanted NYPD to establish its own unique intelligence enterprise that could contend with the IC, and particularly the FBI …”
Retired FBI counterterrorism expert Dan Coleman, who had worked at Alec Station, the CIA’s Osama Bin Laden unit, got an earful on day one of his employment with the NYPD intelligence division.
After listening to Cohen’s profanity-laced diatribe about the FBI, according to the New York Post, “Coleman pushed his chair away from the table, calmly stood up and announced he was resigning — before he technically ever started – and walked out.”
Kelly credits his foreign cops with saving lives in New York.
“Most anywhere there has been a major terrorist attack in the last four years there has been a senior officer from the NYPD at the scene assembling lessons learned for New York… “ Kelly says on the Police Foundation’s Web page.
But that’s the problem, critics say, pointing to a half dozen reported incidents of NYPD officers barging into the scenes of terrorist attacks in London, Mumbai, Madrid, Singapore and Jakarta, virtually impersonating U.S. counterterrorism agents and leaving local security officials confused, or worse, fuming.
The most egregious cases occurred in London.
Following the 1994 arrest there of Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, Kelly celebrated the participation of an undercover NYPD detective on the JTTF who worked the case and had his picture, along with his age, college education and Long Island upbringing sent to reporters — putting him at risk, some said.
“In 24 years of the JTTF,” complained FBI New York spokesman Joseph Valiquette, “I can’t recall a JTTF investigator having his photo published in the midst of a prosecution.”
The NYPD hogged the spotlight again there the next year, with more negative consequences, Fuentes says.
Moments after the 2005 London subway bombings, “several New York police officers ran into the tunnel and showed their badges” as if they had official approval to participate in the investigation, Fuentes said.
“And they didn’t. The cops went back out of the tunnel, called New York, and [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg and Kelly promptly held a press conference describing the carnage and what had gone on in the subway and how they’re going to protect our subway and populace and this kind of thing.”
The British, famously secretive about their investigations, were furious, Fuentes said. “They were going to kick everybody out, including the FBI. The American ambassador is calling the FBI — ‘What’s the story? Who are these guys? Are they with you?’ ‘No, they’re independent.’”
Scotland Yard, Special Branch and other British officials, albeit furious, Fuentes said, held their tongues, because “they didn’t want to create a diplomatic incident with Kelly and Bloomberg and New York City.”
The FBI was reluctant to comment for the record about the NYPD’s foreign presence.
Speaking on terms of anonymity, an official said the FBI “gets it. We understand New York’s desire to be proactive, to learn from the attacks and protect the city and its citizens. The question is how to best to do that.”
Federal intelligence officials’ headaches may only have just begun.
More big-city police, and not just New York’s, could be showing up at far-flung disaster sites in the future, under legislation that could find new life in the next Congress.
A bill to create a Foreign Liaison Officers Against Terrorism program, or FLOAT, died in committee last year, but the likely next chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), is said to favor it.
Meanwhile, NYPD spokesman Browne calls reports of friction with the FBI overblown.
“Our relations, including David Cohen’s, with the FBI are excellent,” Browne says. “That kills those who wish it was otherwise.”
By Jeff Stein | November 10, 2010; 3:30 PM ET