In the past decade, the NYPD has built up a smothering anti-terrorism apparatus, with more than 1,000 officers working counterterrorism, radiation detectors installed in the city and detectives assigned to 11 locations overseas.
The powerful police presence, unprecedented in a U.S. city, has led to periodic rivalries with the federal agency charged with protecting Americans from domestic attacks: the FBI. Those tensions have flared twice recently, including when an FBI-led task force questioned the evidence against two men charged in May by state prosecutors with telling an NYPD undercover detective about their desire to attack synagogues.
This week, New York City officials held a news conference to announce the arrest of Jose Pimentel, an accused al-Qaeda sympathizer charged with plotting to bomb police and post offices and U.S. troops returning home. Missing from the tableau were the federal agents and prosecutors who typically lead major terrorism probes. That’s because the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force, in consultation with the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office, decided the case was not currently prosecutable in federal court.
In interviews, federal law enforcement officials expressed doubts about Pimentel’s capacity to carry out an attack and the strength of the case, which is being prosecuted by the Manhattan district attorney’s office. They said Pimentel had been under the influence of narcotics and that a police informant — who allegedly accompanied Pimentel as he bought bombmaking supplies — had participated in the plot. That, they said, made it possible for Pimentel to argue that he was entrapped.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said the case reflects a broader frustration among some in the FBI. Although NYPD personnel assigned to the FBI’s task force concurred with the decision about Pimentel, they said, the NYPD’s Intelligence Division took the case to the district attorney.
“There are always going to be tensions because agencies are made of human beings,” a federal agent said, “but is the solution to carve out a piece of your agency and start autonomously working terrorism investigations? What sense does that make?’’
A second federal agent said: “The [NYPD] intelligence division is an empire unto itself, and one hand doesn’t necessarily know what the other is doing. They’re trying to have it both ways, and that is flat-out wrong.”
But the second agent added that in the Pimentel case, “in a sense, the system worked. The case didn’t disappear, and nobody got hurt.’’
Browne, the NYPD deputy commissioner, rejected the criticism and said local officials are confident the case is strong. He said that police used at least four confidential informants and undercover police officers over 31 months of interactions with Pimentel and that separate witnesses “heard and saw [Pimentel] talk, then act in building bombs to kill Americans.’’