By Tom Hays
NEW YORK — A senior NYPD commander has been transferred amid questions about the handling of a police source accused of tipping off terror suspect Najibullah Zazi that he was under surveillance, an official confirmed Thursday.
Police and city officials have refused to discuss the removal of Inspector Paul Ciorra from the NYPD's Intelligence Division, first reported Thursday in The New York Times.
But a law enforcement official, who was not authorized to speak about the transfer and insisted on anonymity, confirmed that Ciorra had left the unit and been replaced by an officer with experience on an FBI-run terrorism task force. The official said Ciorra would become commanding officer of the NYPD's highway patrol, despite the Times report that he would be transferred to an administrative position. The highway patrol has 400 officers and had lost its commander to retirement.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg declined to discuss the move Thursday, telling reporters that high-level personnel decisions made by Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly are "between he and I." The mayor also downplayed any internal NYPD fallout from investigation, suggesting it was unfair to second-guess police.
"When I talk to people that I've talked to, there does not seem to be the feeling that they made a mistake. ... Only in retrospect can you tell whether it was the right path or the wrong path."
Roy Richter, leader of a union representing Ciorra, insisted the transfer was not considered disciplinary.
An indictment unsealed Thursday in federal court in Brooklyn charged Zazi with conspiracy in an alleged plot to use homemade bombs in a large-scale terror attack. Court papers alleged that the 24-year-old airport shuttle driver and unidentified coconspirators, while under FBI surveillance, had bought and tested bomb-making materials in Colorado before traveling to New York City this month.
After federal authorities alerted the NYPD to the possible threat, detectives from Ciorra's division sought information about Zazi and others from an imam the Queens neighborhood where Zazi once lived. The next day the imam, Ahmad Wais Afzali, telephoned Zazi, telling him, "They asked about you guys."
Through the recorded conversation, the FBI learned that Zazi "learned directly that the law enforcement officers were tracking his activities," federal prosecutor Jeffrey H. Knox wrote in court papers filed Thursday. "Zazi ultimately purchased an airline ticket and returned to Denver on Sept. 12."
Over the next few days, heavily armed investigators staged a series of aggressive raids in Queens, and arrested Zazi, his father and Afzali on initial charges they lied to investigators. The sudden burst of activity raised questions about whether the detectives' decision to reach out to a source who prove untrustworthy had forced the FBI to go public with the investigation before the extent of the threat and the identities of all the players were known.
In a joint statement, Kelly and Joe Demarest, head of the FBI office in New York, denied reports that the questioning of Afzali and his alleged betrayal had caused a rift between the agencies.
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Afzali, who was released Thursday on bail, has denied any wrongdoing.