NYPD-FBI rift widens over intelligence ops

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, left, and New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly speak to the media at a news conference to discuss a terrorist threat Sept. 8, 2011, in New York City. Getty Images

(AP) NEW YORK - In the fall of 2010, the FBI and New York Police Department were working together on a terrorism investigation on Long Island. The cyber case had been open for more than a year at the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn. So, the Justice Department was surprised when, without notice, the NYPD went to federal prosecutors in Manhattan and asked them to approve a search warrant in the case.

The top counterterrorism agent at the FBI in New York at the time, Greg Fowler, hit the roof. When two agencies don't coordinate, it increases the risk that the investigation and any prosecution could be compromised.

In an email response, Fowler prohibited his agents from sharing information with the NYPD's intelligence unit. He also suspended the weekly management meetings of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the primary pipeline through which information flows to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. It slowed to a trickle.

The episode was recalled by current and former NYPD and FBI officials who, like most who discussed this issue, spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive law enforcement cases. It was not merely a low point in a relationship already littered with low points. It highlights how the dysfunctional partnership jeopardizes cases and sometimes national security.

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The relationship between the FBI and the NYPD — particularly the NYPD Intelligence Division — is among the most studied collaborations in all law enforcement. In the New York media, the fighting and personalities are frequently covered like a dysfunctional celebrity marriage, with perceived betrayal and reconciliation spilling into the news.

The dispute is not trivial. At its core, it is based on fundamental disagreements between the nation's largest police force and the nation's premier counterterrorism agency. As the NYPD has transformed itself into one of the nation's most aggressive intelligence agencies and has spied on Muslims in ways that would be prohibited for the FBI, the rift has widened.

The result is that, in America's largest city, the NYPD and FBI are at times working at cross-purposes. Documents show that the NYPD conducted surveillance on mosques outside its jurisdiction, recording license plates of worshippers as they came and went. On its own, the NYPD has tried its hand at counterintelligence, the clandestine world that within the United States is run by the FBI under a presidential order.

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The issue is especially relevant now following criticism from the top FBI agent in New Jersey, who said the NYPD's spying in his state had jeopardized national security because it made people afraid to cooperate with law enforcement.

"When people pull back cooperation, it creates additional risks, it creates blind spots," Michael Ward said. "It hinders our ability to have our finger on the pulse of what's going on around the state, and thus it causes problems."

The NYPD rejects that argument, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said his department will operate anywhere in the United States if it believes it's necessary to prevent terrorism.

"The police department can follow leads and threats wherever they come from," Bloomberg said, adding that it was all legal. "They can go into any state."

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In the world of New York intelligence-gathering, there is perhaps no larger personality than David Cohen, the NYPD's irascible 69-year-old intelligence chief. Cohen was once one of the CIA's most senior analysts. To an analyst, one of the major pitfalls to be avoided is slipping into groupthink. When everyone endorses the conventional way of thinking, problems often arise.

Cohen similarly doesn't want the NYPD falling in line behind the FBI, according to those who have worked with him. The NYPD's lesson from the 9/11 terror attacks was that it could not trust counterterrorism to the federal government, so Cohen wants his team developing its own intelligence and chasing its own cases; if the FBI is doing the same thing, they eventually can combine their efforts.

Tensions between the FBI and local police are nothing new. Around the country, police grouse that the FBI snatches their biggest cases. The FBI complains that police don't alert the federal government early enough on big cases.

New York is supposed to be different. The NYPD is perhaps the premier police force in the nation. No other department comes close to the NYPD's manpower. No other city can rival its team of counterterrorism analysts, language capabilities or stable of officers working overseas.

New York was the first city to form a Joint Terrorism Task Force, a collaboration of federal and local agencies that has been replicated in cities nationwide. The NYPD has hundreds of officers assigned to that task force, working side by side with the FBI.

When the NYPD Intelligence Division, the secretive squad that answers to Cohen, and the FBI work together, they have produced strong cases. When the FBI was keeping tabs on two New Jersey men whose rhetoric was becoming increasingly violent, it was an undercover NYPD intelligence officer who helped make a case that sent the men to prison.

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