Credible Threat

In a cop's final battle with his bosses, clues about a terror scare

The crowd at the Apollo Theater last October 6 was humming, sipping drinks and munching on snacks, mingling with the luminaries of black New York. There was a buzz in the room because, for the first time, the 2005 mayoral campaign felt like a real race and that night's debate was the reason. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was skipping the event—and getting pounded for it. Al Sharpton bashed him in a radio ad, Charlie Rangel cried foul, and even Bloomberg ally Floyd Flake took issue. The newspapers covered the beef for days. At last, it seemed, Freddy Ferrer's campaign had a pulse.

Little did the crowd know that the final nail had just been rammed into his coffin. Down at One Police Plaza, the mayor and his police commissioner had gone on TV to tell the city that there were fears of a terrorist plot to attack the subways that carry 4.5 million riders on an average weekday.

"I wanted to assure New Yorkers that we have done and will continue to do everything we can to protect the city," the mayor said. Commissioner Ray Kelly said that because of the threat, "we are increasing both the uniformed and plainclothed police presence throughout the transit system."

The alleged threat had originated in Iraq days earlier, but was kept secret because U.S. forces were hunting the plotters. When the suspects were picked up, one screamed, "It's too late! You can't stop us!" and the order went out to flood the subway with cops. "The information has not been fully corroborated," Kelly acknowledged, but he said it was "of sufficient concern for the police department to enhance its counter-terrorism coverage of the subway system and to advise the public of the threat."

But the Department of Homeland Security said the intelligence was "of doubtful credibility." And the timing of the announcement—after the plot had been tripped up in Iraq, and only hours before the debate—made some suspicious.

The official line from One Police Plaza was that the deployment began on the night the threat was announced, a Thursday. "That is untrue," Captain Eric Adams, veteran gadfly of the NYPD, told WCBS on October 14. "The deployment took place on Friday, regardless of what's been said. I was the captain who was assigned." The city reacted too late, Adams contended, and when it finally did respond, its moves were "politically motivated."

At first blush, the comments didn't seem that different from what Adams, the spokesman for 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, has done for many of his nearly 22 years as a cop—a career that will end when he retires on March 17. But this time, the top cops struck back hard: They charged Adams with three violations of departmental rules: speaking as an NYPD representative without permission, discussing official police business without approval, and—most serious—disseminating "incorrect information to the public."

So in his final days on the force, Adams went on trial last month. And in some ways, so did the city's response to the October threat.

That Freddy Ferrer would have sealed victory on October 6 had there been no threat is nonsense; at best he would have had an outside chance. Thus, it's debatable that the mayor would have risked staging a terror alert simply to finish off a failing opponent. Of course, Adams has a First Amendment right to say what he wants as a private citizen, but the NYPD—a paramilitary organization, after all—takes issue with his saying things like "I was the captain who was assigned" as he bashes the mayor.

However, the fate of either Ferrer or Adams is beside the point. While it ultimately proved to be bogus, the subway threat was the first known time, after all the drills and planning and millions spent on counter- terrorism since 9-11, that the city responded to such a specific hint of attack. There ought to be lessons learned. Testimony from Adams's NYPD trial hints at some.

On the day the threat was announced, then-inspector Vincent Giordano was the counter-terrorism coordinator for Manhattan South, which covers everything below 59th Street. It was Giordano's job to plan how the 10 precincts in that sector responded. But when asked if he was told anything specific about the threat (e.g., it was believed baby carriages would be used), Giordano answered, "No. They didn't discuss that."

The NYPD takes issue with that claim, telling the Voice that counter-terrorism officers were given photos of the bombs used in Madrid and specific directives. But over at the Sixth Precinct, where Adams worked that day, word was received that the day shift or second platoon was supposed to stick around. It wasn't clear, however, exactly why. "I never found out a specific reason in regard to the holdover of the second platoon," the commander of the Sixth, Deputy Inspector Theresa Shortell, testified, adding later: "We were just led to believe that it was in regards to terrorism on the transit system in Brooklyn. I never received that from anybody higher than my rank."

Announcing the threat, Kelly said that cops were going to protect the subway "throughout the system." The NYPD claims this was the case on Thursday night. But testimony in the trial suggests that most resources were focused on Manhattan South. That's where many New Yorkers work, of course, but there was no indication where the alleged plot was targeted, much less where its operatives would board the train. (The next day there were cops at every single station.)

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