NYPD Denies It Botched a Terrorism Probe

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Marc Piscotty / AFP / Getty

Afghan-born Najibullah Zazi, 24, arrives at the Byron G. Rogers Federal Building in Denver

The New York Police Department has denied suggestions that it mishandled the investigation of the Zazi terrorism plot, forcing the FBI to make arrests before fully developing the case — and potentially squandering an opportunity to nab many more conspirators. "It's inevitable some people who are unhappy with the outcome will look to criticize," Deputy NYPD Commissioner Paul Browne told TIME. "But there's been good outcomes here. There's been excellent work by the NYPD and the FBI."

Media reports quoting anonymous FBI officials have suggested the NYPD botched the case when it showed a picture of Najibullah Zazi, the Denver shuttle-bus driver at the heart of the investigation, to Ahmed Afzali, a Queens Imam and sometime police informant. Afzali, the reports say, first called Zazi's father Mohammed, then Najibullah himself, alerting them to the probe. The FBI, which had been monitoring the calls, was then forced to move immediately to arrest the Zazis — much sooner than it had planned.

The FBI did not respond to TIME's requests for comment on the Zazi case.

Both Zazis and Afzali have been taken into custody and charged with lying to the authorities; the FBI is working on gathering evidence for terrorism-related charges.

A law-enforcement official familiar with some aspects of the case, speaking with TIME on the condition that neither he nor his organization are named, says the FBI had planned to "leave [Najibullah] Zazi out there for a while," hoping he would make contact with other conspirators in the U.S. and in Pakistan, where he is said to have received training at an al-Qaeda camp. The bureau "had this guy in their sights, and they were comfortable that he was not an immediate threat," says the official. "They thought, 'Let's see how far this guy leads us before we come down on him.' "

When Zazi traveled to New York ahead of the anniversary of 9/11, the FBI as a precaution alerted the NYPD. That's when officers from the NYPD's intelligence unit consulted Afzali. "It looks like they did this on their own initiative — they really trusted this Imam," says the law-enforcement official. "But if they'd consulted with the bureau first, they'd have been told not to talk to anybody."

The premature swoop on the Zazis and Afzali has left the FBI scrambling to gather evidence of a terrorism plot, according to some reports. Afzali's lawyer has denied that his client spilled the beans to the Zazis and has accused the FBI of pursuing Afzali to cover up for its mishandling of the case.

Deputy Commissioner Browne said he could not comment on specifics of the case and would not be drawn into a discussion about whether the NYPD got the FBI's go-ahead to consult Afzali. The department and the FBI "do excellent work together in disrupting terrorism," he said.