BLOG: Bin Laden Is Dead…You Think You’re Safe?
Take a few minutes if you could and please read this piece by Kevin Fontaine. He just completed this and sent a copy my way and I thought it might be a great way for new listeners to learn a bit about who I am and a more in depth look at what happened to me for those who have known me for a while. Please let me know what you think.
The Unemployable Anti-Terrorist
Despite vindication, Ed Norris remains locked out of the fight – at what cost?
On a balmy December Sunday afternoon in Tampa, Ed Norris, former Baltimore police commissioner, is flying back to charm city after witnessing the Buccaneers 23-20 loss to the vastly improved Detroit Lions. As he places his carry-on onto the conveyor belt to get through security, a TSA employee, an older man, asks him if he’s willing to walk into the open-ended stainless steel cylinder, raise his arms in surrender, and submit to a full-body scan. Norris knows it’ll delay him but he refuses. “I’m not breakin’ your balls. I was on the job for over 20 years,” Norris tells the man, “I won’t do the scan.” After the pat down and crotch rub, the TSA clears him.
He stops to eat at Sam Snead’s Tavern. The waitress brings a five-inch serrated steak knife with his dinner. He shakes his head. This is crazy. I just went through security and now I’m given a knife. I could slip it into my carry-on and take it as a weapon onto the plane. So what are we doin’? Are we takin’ this seriously or are we puttin’ on theatre for people? The TSA’s a colossal waste of money; al-Queda’s probably through with aviation. They could just go to a Wal-Mart, buy ten rifles and open up on school yards around America. It’d shut the country down.
On weekdays, Norris spends his mornings under headphones anchored to the console of one of the tomb-like studios of 105.7-FM The Fan. He’s 50 years old and stands only 5’9”, but his shaved head and bulky mass, squeezed within a compact frame creates an intimidating impression.
The Fan is a sports talk radio station. Norris and his on-air partner Steve Davis discuss the Ravens, the Orioles and, at least every other day, the latest DUI or positive drug test or domestic violence charge or strip club incident arising in the life of a well-known athlete. As a morning drive-time show, they often stick in segments that inject levity for listeners hurtling along the beltway. Today is man card Tuesday.
“We’re ready to pull some man cards,” says Davis.
“I’m pulling my own man card,” replies Norris, “For the first time last night, I watched Dancing with the Stars. I wanted to see Hines Ward and Sugar Ray Leonard dance. I was only gonna’ watch them but ended up watchin’ the whole show. Hate to admit it but I liked it. I’m gonna’ watch it next week. That’s gotta’ be a man card violation.”
Twenty years ago, Ed Norris got one of the first glimpses of the dawning of Islamic terrorism in the United States. He warned them but was ignored. Then, after September 11, 2001, he hammered at the FBI during two congressional testimonies; the bloated system’s not working, interagency rivalries compromise security, we need radical, not gradual, change, we’ve got to get more proactive for God’s sake. Many believe he was burned for it, career ruined, talent squandered, money gone, marriage destroyed. Now….now he’s on the radio talking sports and pulling man cards.
It’s November 5, 1990, 30-year old Lieutenant Norris’s first day as commander of the NYPD’s 17th precinct, detective squad. Rabbi Mier Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League, had just finished speaking inside the Marriott East Side Hotel when El Sayyid Nosair walked up and shot him. Nosair, an Egyptian-born, newly minted American citizen, botched his getaway when an accomplice, Mahmud Abouhalima, wasn’t allowed to park his taxi by the Marriott’s entrance. So Nosair ran toward Park Avenue, brandishing his silver-plated .357 magnum, where another man, Mohammed Salameh, was waiting in Nosair’s own car. A uniformed U.S. postal police officer spotted Nosair’s gun and confronted him. Gunshots zipped through the air. Nosair grabbed his neck and staggered to the pavement.
Nosair’s apartment was swarmed by NYPD. Abouhalima and Salameh were there. No, they said, Nosair doesn’t live here anymore longer. Yes, we know him and yes we were at the Marriott. Yes, we will go with you.
Detectives then raided Nosair’s new address, a small rented house in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. Along with FBI agents from New York’s Joint Terrorist Task Force, they found “so much material, so many documents. It was like a bookstore for terrorists,” recalled Sgt. John Mullally, the now-retired homicide detective from Manhattan South, 13th precinct, who executed the search warrant. There were bomb-making manuals, classified documents from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, maps and drawings and photographs of city landmarks, like Time Square and theWorldTradeCenter, hundreds of pages of notes written in Arabic, and over 1,400 rounds of ammunition. It took 47 boxes to contain it all.
Norris browsed the boxes. It turned out to be a buffet of terrorism plans including the 93’WorldTradeCenterbombing, and if you dug deep, hard, and long enough, 9-11. Of course, he didn’t know this at the time. What Norris did know was that he had two men inBellevue: Kahane, who was dead and Nosair, who was not. He also knew that Abouhalima and Salameh had probably worked with Nosair to assassinate Kahane. And when Norris figured in the 47 boxes, he concluded that he had much more on his hands than just Kahane’s slaying.
Norris told his boss, NYPD chief of detectives, Joseph Borelli that they had a criminal conspiracy. But Borelli had already made his mind up. No Eddie, there’s no conspiracy. You’ve got a lone, deranged gunman. What about the 47 boxes and the two guys in the holding cell? Shut up Eddie. Your job is to clear homicides, not to investigate alleged conspiracies.
Norris was ordered to release Abouhalima and Salameh. The next day, the FBI took the 47 boxes out Norris’s office. He shrugged and went back to investigating the unsolved murders that littered his whiteboard.
On December 21, 1992, due to a lack of witnesses in a room full of people, Nosair was acquitted of murdering Kahane, but got 7-22 years for using an illegal gun to shoot Charles Acosta, theUSpostal officer. Less than two months later, on February 26, 1993, Ramzi Yousef and Eyad Ismoil, comrades of Nosair, Abouhalima, and Salameh, drove a rented yellow van filled with 1,500 pounds of explosives into the public parking garage beneath the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The van exploded a little after noon. The blast killed 6, wounded 1,042, and created nearly a billion dollars of damage and mayhem. Damn lucky, the structural engineers said. If the van was better placed, theNorthTowermight well have fallen into theSouthTower, and accomplished Yousef’s goal of killing 250,000 people in an afternoon.
Norris, who was by then Chief Investigator for the NYC Department of Investigations, heard the blast and felt the concussive pressure from the 10th floor of his office at 80 Maiden Lane, a few blocks from the Trade Center. He made no connection then. No one did. Eventually it was determined that Abouhalima and Salameh had helped build the bomb.
When the FBI, after nearly three years, finally translated the contents of the 47 boxes, they found the formula for a bomb made from fuel oil and urea-nitrate, the type of bomb that bored the four-story hole in the bowels of theNorthTower. They also found sermons and audiotapes by Nosair’s spiritual mentor, Sheik Abdel-Rahman, better known as the blind sheik, calling for the killing of infidels and for the destruction of the “tall buildings of which the Americans are so proud.”
Ed Norris is the product of Brooklyn. His father, grandfather, and two of his uncles were NYPD. Norris joined the force when he was 20. His aptitude for the work, near mythical hard-charging, and thirst for advancement led to stints in narcotics and homicide. He headed the NYPD’s fugitive division and created a cold case squad that solved twenty-seven murders in six weeks. He catapulted to deputy commissioner when he was 36.
In 1999, with Baltimore’s murder rate seven times higher than the national average (gang-bangers spray-painted “Bodymore, Murderland” on the dilapidated buildings and cracked pavement in West Baltimore), the city’s new mayor, Martin O’Malley, recruited Norris to become deputy commissioner of the BPD. When Commissioner Ronald Daniel resigned after 57 days, Norris, in March of 2000, took over. He vowed to get annual homicides below 300.
Norris immediately hammered at the status quo. He shifted schedules, fired deadwood from the command staff, and created a task force that captured 250 fugitives with outstanding warrants for murder or attempted murder. He used ComStat, the crime tracking system, to map and grid criminal “hot spots” so he could figure out where to deploy his cops. He infused a manic enthusiasm for crime fighting. His charges loved him. He brought pride back to the badge. He led from the front, bolting down the streets ofWest Baltimorein his squad car, Unit One, clad in a black leather jacket and dark sunglasses. Gifted with media savvy, his weekly press conferences rippled with quotable utterances. Often the first to arrive at crime scenes, he’d orchestrate the investigation and direct the TV cameras. Homicides dropped from 305 to 261, and violent crimes plummeted by 28%.
Norris was big, bigger than even the young, charismatic O’Malley (the media started calling them Pretty Boy and Bruno; kicking ass and taking names.) He ate filet mignon, rare, at the city’s finest restaurants. He drank. He partied. He slept little. He played detective Ed Norris on the HBO series The Wire. He posed with tourists. He was a folk hero to a city accustomed to an overflowing morgue. Then it began to unravel.
The Baltimore Sun started running articles which claimed that Norris had been spending money from a BPD discretionary account on things like cuff links, dinners, golf shirts, sweatshirts, and souvenirs for staff and visiting police chiefs who he’d also treat to Baltimore Orioles baseball games. This “off the books” discretionary account, initiated in the 1920s, was spent by commissioners on things like dress uniforms, “appreciation” lunches for police personnel, and additional training for officers. U.S. Attorney forMaryland, Thomas M. DiBaigio, said there’d be no investigation of Norris’s spending because no taxpayer money was involved, it was a private BPD fund; let them deal with it.
Norris wanted to resign but O’Malley convinced him to repay the account and put it behind him. So he forked over $6,000 for the trip to New York to attend a funeral, the Orioles tickets, and $2,000 of undocumented spending, which included, it turned out, a pair of combat boots and a spider rescue knife purchased the day after the September 11 attacks.
Norris, who’d already transformed the BPD, wanted a new challenge, so, in December of 2002, he resigned as police commissioner and accepted the offer of the newly elected Governor, Robert L. Erhlich, Jr., to run the Maryland State Police. Erhlich wanted Norris to wield his hammer to transform the stale institution into a modern force. “Ed doesn’t suffer fools lightly,” said Erhlich, “I wanted him to bring his aggressive, cocky swagger to the state police.” Norris, who’d become obsessed with terrorism after 9-11, was keen to beef up the troopers’ anti-terrorism training, by setting up, among other things, an intelligence division and a 24-hour terrorism watch center.
The seat in Norris’s new office wasn’t even warmed yet when Dibaggio assigned five full-time investigators to develop an indictment against the new superintendent. The indictment, parts of which were leaked to the Sun, claimed that Norris had used money from the discretionary account to buy tailored suits and dress shoes, lingerie from Victoria’s Secret, expensive steak dinners, and to bankroll road trips with different women. In addition to the spending from the discretionary account, which Norris had already paid back, the indictment charged that Norris had made a false statement on his mortgage application, a federal crime punishable by up to 30 years.
Norris wanted to fight. Go line-by-line and refute every g*ddamn word in the indictment, show how those a$$holes lied, how the eight Orioles tickets were free, part of Mayor O’Malley’s allotment from the Orioles, how he just bought food and drinks for the police officers as an appreciation for their work, how the free tickets were included in the indictment so it added up to $6,000, just enough to make it a felony. “Ironically, I got hoisted on my own petard,” said Norris. “I wanted better record keeping, so I put in a little form with every request that explained what the police department purposes were. I wanted a record because I thought it was kind of sloppy, before. But in the end, that’s what the Feds were hanging their hat on.”
David B. Irwin, Norris’s lawyer, convinced him that when the Feds have you in their crosshairs, the best you can do is take a deal, minimize the damage; walk away with something to walk away with. Norris bit his tongue, swallowed down the bitterness, the anger, the reflex to break things.
The Feds told Norris that if he didn’t plead guilty to pilfering the fund he’d never see his son grow up. “The mortgage is what they called ‘the headshot,’” said Norris, “and they used it to force a plea.” In March 2004, Norris pleaded guilty to conspiring to misuse the supplemental city police fund, and in return, the Feds dropped the mortgage fraud charge. Norris said, “It’s funny isn’t it? I had to plead guilty to something I didn’t do so the charge for the thing that I did do could be dropped.”
He prepared to serve his six month sentence in minimum-security federal prison by eating voraciously and working out so he would bulk up to become more intimidating. He wore a bandana, blended in, and served his time without incident. After that, there was another six months of house arrest in his family’s new home inTampa. He also paid $22,000 in restitution and fines. “I lost my life savings defending myself and supporting my family,” said Norris. “What took twenty-four years to save was lost in the blink of an eye while I was unemployed and incarcerated.”
But that was just part of it, the easy part. There was also dealing with the end of his law enforcement career, the disintegration of his marriage, the depression conjoined with unpredictable and explosive anger, the drinking, the loss of hope, the scarlet letter of ex-felon that cost him a minimum wage job at perfumery. Norris went from the apex of law enforcement and a gig on HBO to, well, nothing. Now he struggled to pay rent and buy food. Now he struggled just to hang on. Many of his friends in law enforcement abandoned him, unwilling to associate with him and risk their own careers. Norris thought about writing his memoir, but couldn’t bring himself to relive it all, the journey from that to this, from there to here.
“Being out of law enforcement was unlike anything else except maybe Pete Rose’s baseball ban,” said Norris. “I was completely isolated from all I knew before. My life changed in every way you can imagine and I truly didn’t know what I was going to do.” Then came a lifeline; for Norris, a Catholic, it was virtually a divine intervention. Would he be willing to participate in a Baltimore talk radio show? So, remotely, while still in Tampa, he appeared on the Big O and Dukes Show. When home detention ended, Norris was ordered to perform 500 hours of community service in Baltimore, so he moved back north and became co-host of the show, Ed Norris with Big O and Dukes. After several iterations, including a foray into political talk, the Norris and Davis Show is one of the top-rated programs on Baltimore’s airwaves.
Radio now pays the bills but Norris’s abiding interest is terrorism. “If it [the conviction] didn’t happen I would either be working for a government agency or consulting with one or more. Whatever route I took I’d be trying to help our anti terrorism efforts.”
It’s a miracle, he says, we haven’t suffered another big attack. “We’re relying on a Dutch photographer to save a plane. We’re relying on two T-shirt salesmen in Time Square to save lives because they saw a smoking car. And then to go on television and say, ‘See, the system works,’ no, it doesn’t. It’s an example of how you failed, we were lucky.”
Norris advocates the same command structure and management philosophy to fight terrorism that al-Qaeda uses to produce it. They centralize the decision making and decentralize the execution. Norris believes that intelligence gathering and evidence building should be handled centrally, by the CIA and the FBI, and that the actual execution of the operation, the tracking down and apprehension of terrorist suspects, should be carried out by local law enforcement. “I’ve experienced so much in this one particular field,” says Norris, “that I have a unique perspective because, the fact is, this war is being fought and it will be fought on American streets and who defends American streets? The police and the sheriff’s departments and the state troopers and that’s who you’ve gotta’ tap into and, despite what people say, they’re not fully involved in the fight. Terrorism is a new type of warfare. Small arms fire, it’s asymmetrical, akin to a police action.”
DiBaigio was elated when Norris took the plea. “We deserve better” he said, “We deserve public officials who are both effective and honest. The only way to get from here to there is a policy of zero tolerance, backed up by an unyielding commitment and intractable belief that the rules apply to everyone.”
Nine months later, DiBaigio was forced to resign amid allegations, buttressed by emails, that he ordered subordinates to produce front-page corruption indictments. In early 2007, the Justice Department revealed that DiBaigio’s departure was due to “persistent problems with his candor and prosecutorial judgment.” His replacement, Allen F. Loucks, dismissed several of DiBaigio’s high-profile indictments and the state of Maryland paid restitution for the defendants’ legal fees. This was of little consolation to Norris who always maintained his innocence, that he was railroaded, that claims he used the discretionary account to, among other things, finance trysts and buy lingerie were untrue, simply smears to “sex-up” the case to provoke media interest.
Why did the Feds expend so much energy and resources to convict Norris? Theories abound. An rogue federal prosecutor, a jealous and vindictive O’Malley (Maryland’s current two-term governor), and the one favored by many of Norris’s former NYPD and BPD colleagues; that it was payback for his two terrorism-related congressional testimonies when he was Baltimore’s police commissioner.
On October 5, 2001, before the Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Communication Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attack of September 11, 2001, Norris talked about the Kahane case; his superiors’ insistence on the lone gunman theory, the release of Abouhalima and Salameh, and the failure to immediately translate the contents of the 47 boxes. “Eddie was very vocal about how things got screwed up, letting the two other guys go and not translating all the stuff we found at Nosair’s,” explained Mullally. “They were gunning for him because his testimony was very critical of the New Yorkfield office, the FBI.”
Norris didn’t want to testify. “I knew that if I did this, there’d be a chance that I’d never work in the profession again,” said Norris, “But I was convinced by someone who became a friend of mine, Retired General Barry McCaffrey. He said, ‘Son, it’s your duty as an American to testify.’ So, I talked about what went wrong, about how we had these guys. I pissed them off.” The minute Norris walked out of the committee room, he considered himself a marked man. A couple of days later, some NYPD colleagues called to tell him that the FBI was not happy and that they said they were going to go after him.
His second testimony, on October 1, 2002, before the Joint Hearing of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, was, if anything, even more damaging to the FBI than his first. Norris said that his detectives had worked an arson warrant on September 10, 2002 and encountered eight men from Morocco,Pakistan,Somalia and Afghanistanin a sparsely furnished apartment filled with computers, cell phones, documents, passports that didn’t belong to them, and photographs of landmarks like Union Station and Times Square. The men, Norris said, were taken into custody but released by the FBI the same day because they concluded that their only offense were expired visas. The FBI also said that there was no evidence that the men were part of a terrorist cell. “Well, that may be true on its face,” Norris told the committee, “I mean, if they’re waiting for a notarized plan with a list of terrorists, it’s going to be a long wait. This is chillingly, eerily similar to what we encountered years ago and encountered here and there through our daily work as police officers in this country. And to be told this by our federal partners is very disturbing to us.”
Norris’s testimony was clear: Even after the crumbling of the Twin Towers and with the government imploring the public to be vigilant for possible terrorist attacks (In 2002, the Homeland Security Advisory System’s threat level fluctuated between yellow [elevated] and orange [high]), the lumbering federal bureaucracy still failed to respond effectively, or even, it seemed, acknowledge, that there were still potential purveyors terrorism in our midst.
So he used his testimonies to hammer at the status quo. It worked with the BPD. It shook things up; got things changed, energized the force, radically modified outdated law enforcement practices, and reduced escalating body counts. But, as Norris now says, swinging the hammer didn’t accomplish much at the federal level, other than irreparably damage his family, bank account, and reputation, and permanently bar from the vocation he loves so dearly. “I find it ironic,” says Norris, “that the Feds destroy a guy who not only could’ve continued to help fight the war on terror but was the guy who warned them of a conspiracy in the first place.” He thinks for a moment, then says, “I warned them once and was told to shut up, warned them twice and was destroyed. What’s next?”
It’s man card Tuesday.