A new investigation by the Associated Press reveals how, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the New York City Police Department decided it could no longer trust other agencies to prevent terrorism and started expanding its own intelligence gathering. In the process, it became "one of the nation’s most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies," targeting ethnic communities in ways that would run afoul of civil liberties rules if practiced by the federal government. The report, titled "With CIA Help, NYPD Moves Covertly in Muslim Areas," also finds that these operations "benefited from unprecedented help from the CIA, a partnership that has blurred the line between foreign and domestic spying." The report details how police used informants, known as "mosque crawlers," to monitor sermons, even without any evidence of wrongdoing. Also falling under NYPD’s scrutiny were imams, taxi cab drivers and food cart vendors — jobs often done by Muslims. We speak with Matt Apuzzo, co-author of the Associated Press investigative report, and get response from Gadeir Abbas, staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
JUAN GONZALEZ: A new investigation by the Associated Press reveals how, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the New York City Police Department decided it could no longer trust other agencies to prevent terrorism and started expanding its own intelligence gathering. In the process, it became, quote, "one of the nation’s most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies," targeting ethnic communities in ways that would run afoul of civil liberties rules if practiced by the federal government.
The report, titled "With CIA Help, NYPD Moves Covertly in Muslim Areas," also finds that these operations have, quote, "benefited from unprecedented help from the CIA, a partnership that has blurred the line between foreign and domestic spying."
Here’s an excerpt from the video that accompanies the story.
AP REPORT: At this New Brunswick, New Jersey, apartment, an alarming scene was found inside Unit 1076: terrorist literature strewn about and a wealth of computer and surveillance equipment. But this wasn’t the command center of a terrorist cell. The materials belonged to a secret team of NYPD intelligence officers, a unit operating miles outside its jurisdiction.
AMY GOODMAN: The Associated Press report details how police used informants, known as "mosque crawlers," to monitor sermons, even without any evidence of wrongdoing. Also falling under NYPD’s scrutiny were imams, cab drivers, food cart vendors—jobs often done by Muslims.
The NYPD did not respond to Democracy Now!'s repeated requests for comment, but its spokesman, Paul Browne, said yesterday the AP story was, quote, "marked by outright fiction," unquote, and insisted there's no such thing as "mosque crawlers." Browne said, "We’re going to do all we reasonably can to keep New York safe. And we uphold the Constitution in doing so."
For more, we go Washington, D.C., to speak with Matt Apuzzo, co-author of the Associated Press investigative report. In New York, we’re joined by Gadeir Abbas, a staff attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He has worked on cases of surveillance and government informants across the country.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Matt Apuzzo, why don’t you start by just laying out what you found?
MATT APUZZO: Well, as you guys said in the intro, after 9/11, the NYPD really transformed its intelligence division, which, before that, had been basically a glorified chauffeur service for dignitaries. And they brought in a man named Dave Cohen, who, you know, was at one time our nation’s top spy. He was the deputy director for operations of the CIA and also a former New York station chief. And they brought him in to—he was retired—they brought him in to transform the department. And one of the first things he did was—excuse me—to call down to Langley and say, "I need—we need help." And CIA Director George Tenet responded by sending a very veteran, well-respected officer to New York, while on the CIA payroll, to help really be the architect of the NYPD’s new intelligence division’s collections programs.
And as they went, as you guys talked about, the programs really began to kind of mimic some of the CIA’s programs. They’re very aggressive at building informants. And, you know, they have a program that was known as the "Demographics Unit," informally, inside the NYPD. The Demographics Unit, what they would do was they’d take ethnic officers out of the academy and drop them into ethnic neighborhoods, where there would basically be the eyes and the ears of the NYPD. They were undercover. They obviously didn’t work out of NYPD headquarters. They just were—hang out. And so, they’d kind of go to the bookstores and the libraries and the hookah bars and the clubs and the cafes, and just be the eyes and ears of the NYPD and listen for things that are suspicious.
Now, they were also looking for things like where could you buy a bomb, you know, where could you buy bomb-making equipment, how could you move money, you know, those sorts of hot spots. But they were also looking at things that kind of at least brushed up against First Amendment activities. A number of officers mentioned that if somebody was watching television, if Al Jazeera was on television, and there was a report about an IED going off in Iraq, and somebody at the bar, you know, cheered, that, you know, that person would become the subject of a report back to headquarters, and they’d talk about maybe "Do we want to drop an informant on that guy and try to get as much information as we can?"
They also paid—they had three tiers of informants. The have seeded informants — S-E-E-D-E-D. These are just, you know, the nosy neighbors, the woman hanging out on the stoop all day, you know, keeping an eye on what’s going on in the neighborhood, and she’d pay—she’d provide information. They had directed informants that they could say, "Go out and gather information on this one topic." They had people they could send out to an event just to be eyes and ears. And they also had a group of informants called, informally, "mosque crawlers," whose job it was just to go to the mosques, you know, not always the same mosque, just pop into the mosques and keep an eye open. If there’s radical things being said, report back. But in a number of instances, these mosque crawlers were reporting back on things that—that wasn’t radical, you know, whether it’s running plates in the parking lot or whatnot.
So, I mean, it really did—I mean, it really is an aggressive domestic intelligence unit that is a model that we don’t see anywhere else in the country. And frankly—
JUAN GONZALEZ: Matt Apuzzo—
MATT APUZZO: —part of that is because—yeah?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Matt, I’d like to ask you, specifically—
MATT APUZZO: Sure.
JUAN GONZALEZ: —one of the things that Cohen had to do to be able to implement this was to get the courts to loosen restrictions on—
MATT APUZZO: Right.
JUAN GONZALEZ: —the NYPD surveillance that had been in place since back—the abuses that the NYPD committed when it had its old Red Squad, the boss unit that did unprecedented—
MATT APUZZO: Right.
JUAN GONZALEZ: —surveillance operations of dissident groups in the United States in the ’60s and ’70s. Could you talk about—
MATT APUZZO: Right.
JUAN GONZALEZ: —what Cohen did there?
MATT APUZZO: Sure. So, as you said, '60s and ’70s, they're monitoring political activity. In 1985, there was a federal court order, a consent decree, that basically said the NYPD can’t investigate political activity without specific information linking it to criminal activity. So you can’t just go around, you know—can’t just go around trying to monitor political dissidents or, you know, political activity, unless there’s a real connection to criminal activity. And what the NYPD said—and in some ways, this was exactly what the FBI said at the time—you know, "Look, if we wait for there to be a crime, if we wait for criminal activity, then we are going to—we’re going to find ourselves in a situation where we’ve waited too long. And we need the ability—those rules can’t apply anymore. This is a new day. We need the ability to open our investigations before a crime is committed." And a judge agreed and said that, you know, "Look, those old guidelines were for an old time. You know, we’re in a new time. They need new guidelines," so really loosened the restrictions that dictated when the NYPD could start their investigations. And that really did open the door to a lot of these programs.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re talking to the AP reporter, Matt Apuzzo, who, with Adam Goldman, did a fascinating piece about the New York Police Department working with the CIA after 9/11 and questions about, what are the laws around the CIA gathering domestic intelligence? And we’ll speak with a representative of the Muslim community in New York. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.