National Security Agency octupus conducts widespread surveillance of people in the United States and around the world. The US Senate recently gave broader authority to the state to carry out spying., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
November 21, 2011
Informer’s Role in Terror Case Is Said to Have Deterred F.B.I.
By WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM and JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN
New York Times
The suspect had little money to speak of, was unable to pay his cellphone bill and scrounged for money to buy the drill bits that court papers said he required to make his pipe bombs. He apparently needed a place to build the devices, and struggled to drill the small holes that needed to be made in the metal tubes.
The suspect, Jose Pimentel, according to several people briefed on the case, would seek help from a neighbor in Upper Manhattan and a confidential informer. That informer provided companionship and a staging area so Mr. Pimentel, a Muslim convert, could build three pipe bombs while the Intelligence Division of the New York Police Department built its case.
But it was the informer’s role, and that of his police handlers, that have now been cited as among the reasons the F.B.I., which had its own parallel investigation of Mr. Pimentel, did not pursue the case, which was announced on Sunday night in a news conference at City Hall. Terrorism cases are generally handled by federal authorities.
There was concern that the informer might have played too active a role in helping Mr. Pimentel, said several people who were briefed on the case, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity, either because of the tense relations between the Intelligence Division and the F.B.I. or because the case was continuing.
Some of those officials said the state’s prosecution of Mr. Pimentel was strong enough to most likely gain a conviction, emphasizing that Mr. Pimentel, who was nearing completion of the pipe bombs, had to be arrested.
But there are other issues that could complicate the case, in which Mr. Pimentel has been charged with criminal possession of a weapon in the first degree as a crime of terrorism, for which he could face 25 years to life in prison if convicted, and other charges, including conspiracy as a crime of terrorism.
Mr. Pimentel, 27, who lived with his uncle in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood after his mother threw him out recently, appears to be unstable, according to several of the people briefed on the case, three of whom said he had tried to circumcise himself.
And Mr. Pimentel, several of the people said, also smoked marijuana with the confidential informant, and some recordings in which he makes incriminating statements were made after the men had done so. His lawyer, Joseph Zablocki, did not return a call on Monday seeking comment.
Asked about the F.B.I.’s concerns, Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said: “I’ve never heard that issue about the C.I. at all. I don’t think the person telling you that is familiar with the investigation.”
“It sounds like some people speaking anonymously who are not particularly familiar with the case are trying to undermine it,” he added, suggesting that the evidence in the case was considerable. “The fact remains that the words and actions of the suspect speak for themselves.”
Intelligence Division detectives have had Mr. Pimentel, a native of the Dominican Republic and naturalized American citizen, under surveillance for more than two years and made more than 400 hours of secret recordings, but his efforts to make the pipe bombs did not develop until mid-October, according to the criminal complaint against him.
The news conference at City Hall on Sunday night was the second time in six months that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg; his police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly; and Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, announced the break-up of what Mr. Kelly cast as a major terrorism case that federal authorities had chosen not to pursue.
In the earlier case, in May, the police and the district attorney’s office, using undercover officers, had discovered a terrorist plot in which two men were set on bombing synagogues and churches. But a grand jury declined to bring charges of second-degree conspiracy as a crime of terrorism and as a hate crime, the top charges against the two men, Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mamdouh.
In the current case, federal agents were first told of Mr. Pimentel about a year ago, when the Police Department’s Intelligence Division asked the F.B.I.-N.Y.P.D. Joint Terrorism Task Force, staffed with police detectives and federal agents, if they wanted to pursue a case.
Then, in recent days and weeks, the Intelligence Division again approached federal agents when it became apparent that Mr. Pimentel had begun building a bomb. But the federal government again declined.
As late as Saturday, after Mr. Pimentel was arrested, the Intelligence Division invited the task force to interview Mr. Pimentel and view the partially constructed incendiary device, a person briefed on the investigation said.
In the task force, investigators were concerned that the case raised some entrapment questions, two people said. They added that some investigators wondered whether Mr. Pimentel had the even small amount of money or technical know-how necessary to produce a pipe bomb on his own, had he not received help from the informer.
A spokesman for the New York F.B.I. office, Timothy Flannelly, said that the task force was consulted regarding the New York police investigation into Mr. Pimentel, and that the decision was made to take the case to the Manhattan district attorney.
One federal law enforcement official said the tensions between competing agencies could sometimes obscure what he said was their primary goal. “There is an overarching important good picture to this which is the whole point of what we do — trying to keep people safe and protect them,” the official said.
There is a practical advantage to bringing the case in New York State court: state prosecutors said they were allowed to charge Mr. Pimentel with a conspiracy, even if he were acting with just the informant; federal law does not permit charging such a conspiracy.
The Police Department became aware of Mr. Pimentel in May 2009, when it was told by a police department in the Albany area that he was speaking about plans to go to Yemen for terrorism training and then to return to the United States, Mr. Browne said.
He said Mr. Pimentel’s talk did not “turn to action” until recently; Mr. Kelly, at the Sunday news conference, said Mr. Pimentel clearly “jacked up his speed after the elimination” of the Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by an American drone strike in September.
At the building where Mr. Pimentel lived on West 137th Street, his uncle said Sunday that the only recent change he noticed in his nephew was his conversion to Islam. On Monday, Mr. Pimentel’s mother, Carmen Sosa, apologized to the city — “I’m sorry about my son,” she said at one point as she faced reporters in the hallway of the apartment building. She also thanked the police.
But she said, in Spanish, “My son is not a terrorist.” She added, in English, “My son was like an normal boy, like a normal guy.”
“He likes the way of the Muslims,” she said, explaining that he had converted from Roman Catholicism. She also said: “In the beginning, he wasn’t fanatic. He was a regular Muslim.”
Reporters asked her if her son had ever talked about Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden or had ever said he wanted to harm American soldiers, as the criminal complaint said. She answered each question no.
Some in the neighborhood described Mr. Pimentel as a somewhat solitary figure who at times appeared to be lost in his own thoughts. At the Cachet barber shop on 138th Street and Broadway, people said he would sit on a bench there for hours without talking. “He’s like a zombie; he’s in limbo all the time,” Ralphie Sanchez, 59, said.
One reporter asked Mr. Pimentel’s mother if her son had deserved to be arrested. “Deserves is a strong word,” she said. “It’s difficult to say. Justice has to be done.”
Reporting was contributed by James Barron, Matt Flegenheimer, Colin Moynihan and Scott Shane.