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There's a photo in an old Hofstra University yearbook that would prompt plenty of guffaws in press rooms from Boston to the Beltway: Howie Safir, news editor of the campus paper, the Chronicle, working on deadline, feverishly and fearlessly gathering news.
Nearly 40 years later, New York City's embattled police commissioner is yelling "Stop the presses!" for other reasons.
All laughing and smiling as a member of the Friars Club or as a newly minted celebrity, Safir routinely exchanges fire with reporters and columnists. In 1997, he was snidely honored with a free-speech group's "Jefferson Muzzle" for barring a Daily Newsreporter who had quoted someone elsecalling Safir a "lightweight."
In his college days, "Howie," as he was called, may have been a lot heavier.
A 1963 yearbook lists among his Hofstra activities a group called the National Student Association. The NSA consisted of liberal, anti-Communist students and had active chapters on many college campuses in the 1960s. Critical of the escalating American involvement in Vietnam and outspoken in defense of racial equality, the NSA attracted many idealistic kids. It had a reputation for being left-wing but not radical.
But in 1967, the radical magazine Rampartsblew the lid off the NSA, revealing that it was heavily funded by the CIA and had been infiltrated for years by government snoops and spies who manipulated its activities and compiled information on potentially "dangerous" students here and overseas.
Was Howie Safir, to all appearances simply the news editor of the campus paper (and even a member of the journalism fraternity Pi Delta Epsilon), actually a government snoop? Judging by Safir's activities after college, it would have been no surprise if he had started snooping while on the Hempstead campus. Safir has talked of his post-college undercover work for the federal Bureau of Narcotics as a drug-buying hippie in Haight-Ashbury. Last spring, he told the New York Observer: "I spent most of my life doing relatively covert work..."
Was he in the NSA as a government agent?
"I don't think he was an agent," his spokeswoman Marilyn Mode told the Long Island Voicethis week. "I'll ask him." Told it also seemed interesting that, even if Safir wasn't a spy, he was actually in a liberalgroup, Mode replied, "He's quite an independent thinker."
A couple of hours later, Mode called back to say she talked with her boss and learned that Safir was a member of the NSA only because he was part of student government. "He was a delegate or something, and it was automatic," she said. "He was a member of the student body government."
But the NSA was not an organization of student-government dweebs. Besides, Safir wasn't listed in the yearbook as a class officer and didn't mention student government in his activities list in the yearbook. Pressed for an explanation, Mode abruptly cut off questions by saying, "I've given you the answer. You're not taking it at face value."
If Safir was a member of the NSA only because he was in student government, then why didn't he list student government as one of his activities? (The complete list appears in the caption to the yearbook photo, left.)
"I've told you what I know," Mode said.
Safir certainly has talked about more secretive parts of his career. One of his most noted jobs was running the feds' furtive-by-definition Witness Protection Program. And, in a proposal for an autobiography, according to reports in the Observerand elsewhere, Safir wrote: "I thought about all the events I had participated in during my 25 years as a Federal agent and realized that there were few major crimes, disasters or government conspiracies that I has [sic] not had some contact with."