We speak with Matt Apuzzo, co-author of the Associated Press series that revealed the New York City Police Department has extensively spied on Muslim Americans not only in the tri-city area, but throughout the eastern United States. The series won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. Beginning last August, the AP detailed how the NYPD established a vast operation to monitor Muslim neighborhoods after the 9/11 attacks. Hundreds of mosques, businesses and Muslim student groups were investigated, monitored and, in many cases, infiltrated. Police observed and cataloged daily life in Muslim communities, from where people ate and shopped to where they worked and prayed. 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 and food cart vendors. According to the AP, many of these operations were built with help from the CIA, which is prohibited from spying on Americans. In the process, the NYPD 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 revelations sparked a national controversy that only grew as the AP continued to reveal more details of the NYPD’s actions. "We try to provide that information so people can make informed decisions," Apuzzo says. "This wasn’t a series we set out to do ... I think it continues if more information makes itself available. And we’ll go where the story leads." [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: The Associated Press has won the Pulitzer Prize for its series of articles that reveal the New York Police Department has extensively spied on Muslim Americans. Beginning last August, the Associated Press detailed how the NYPD established a vast operation to monitor Muslim neighborhoods after the 9/11 attacks. Hundreds of mosques, businesses and Muslim student groups were investigated, monitored and, in many cases, infiltrated. Police monitored and cataloged daily life in Muslim communities, from where people ate and shopped to where they worked and prayed. Police used informants, known as "mosque crawlers," to monitor sermons, even without any evidence of wrongdoing. Also falling under the NYPD’s scrutiny were imams, cab drivers, food cart vendors.
According to the Associated Press, many of these operations were built with help from the CIA, which is prohibited from spying on Americans. In the process, the New York Police Department 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.
This is an excerpt from the video that accompanied the AP’s first story on the New York Police Department’s spying.
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 revelations sparked a national controversy that only grew as the AP continued to reveal more details of the NYPD’s actions. These include the targeted surveillance of Shiite mosques following increased tensions between the U.S. and Iran, the practice of spying not just in New York but across the Northeast, financial backing from the White House for the program, and the targeting of Muslim mosques with tactics normally reserved for criminal organizations. Faced with protest and calls to resign, in February New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly defended the spying by invoking the 9/11 attacks.
COMMISSIONER RAY KELLY: We believe we’re doing what we have to do, pursuant to the law, to protect this city, a city that’s been attacked successfully twice and had 14 plots against it in—you know, in the last two decades.
AMY GOODMAN: The New York Police Department’s spying has received attention in Washington, with over two dozen members of Congress calling for an investigation into the ties between the Central Intelligence Agency and the New York Police Department. Just last month, Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed the Justice Department is reviewing the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims in the northeastern United States. Testifying before a Senate panel, Holder said he was disturbed by reports of the spying outside of New York City, which included the monitoring of mosques and Islamic student groups in neighboring New Jersey.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: There are various components within the Justice Department that are actively looking at these matters. I talked to Governor Christie, actually. I saw him at a reception, I guess a couple days or so ago, and he expressed to me the concerns that he had. He has now publicly expressed his concerns as only he can. And I think at least what I’ve read publicly, and again, just what I’ve read in the newspapers, is disturbing, and these are things that are under review at the Justice Department.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Attorney General Eric Holder. We go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Matt Apuzzo, who co-authored the Associated Press series that revealed the New York Police Department’s spying.
Matt Apuzzo, welcome to Democracy Now! and congratulations for your Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.
MATT APUZZO: Amy, thanks a lot, and thanks for having me back.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you on. The series is called, that series that you wrote—the whole series is called?
MATT APUZZO: I mean, this is a weird one, right? Because we didn’t set out to write a series, so we didn’t have a title. I mean, this was—this is kind of classic following—following the story where it takes you. We didn’t say at the beginning, "Oh, we’re going to write a five-part series or a 10-part series. You know, let’s time it in late September and try to, you know, capture it to the end of the year. Maybe we’ll win a Pulitzer Prize." It just—this sort of just bubbled up organically, so we didn’t really have a name, you know. We didn’t have a catchy title for this one.
AMY GOODMAN: But you certainly caught the attention of many throughout this country as you talked about the New York Police Department. Explain very briefly, if you will, what happened after 9/11. Talk about how the CIA hooked up with the New York Police Department.
MATT APUZZO: Well, so, Ray Kelly came back as police commissioner, and the city also hired David Cohen to be the intelligence chief at the NYPD. Cohen is the former top spy in the United States at the CIA, the deputy director of operations. So he came in basically to build an intelligence division that had kind of become backwater, glorified chauffeur service for VIPs. And one of his first calls was to—back to Langley, back to his old employer. And, you know, remember, this is late two thousand—this is 2002. And so, he says, "Hey, I need—I need somebody. I need somebody to come up here and help me out."
And remember, the recriminations and finger-pointing of 9/11 were really starting to happen. Everybody, rightly, was focused on how to prevent another attack. And the CIA didn’t want to say no to New York, and they dispatched a senior officer to New York to basically be the NYPD’s private liaison with the CIA. That opened the door to a relationship in which the CIA officer who was working there helped set up a lot of these programs, helped set up programs to be the eyes and—to have eyes and ears inside every Muslim community in the city. You know, the demographics unit, which is, you know, these rakers, as you referred to, informants known as "mosque crawlers," a lot of that was built with the help from the CIA, this officer who helped start these programs while on CIA payroll.
AMY GOODMAN: And where are the rules that say that the CIA is not supposed to be spying on American citizens?
MATT APUZZO: Well, you know, there’s an executive order that sets the rules for, you know, what the CIA—the different rules of all the different intelligence agency. There’s also a federal law that says the CIA is not supposed to spy on Americans. And when—after our story came out, the CIA’s inspector general looked into this and concluded there was no evidence that the CIA performed domestic spying and violated any laws, but said, "You know, look, we probably operated with probably some poor judgment here sending this officer up to New York with no oversight, no ground rules, hadn’t been reviewed by lawyers, and just leaving him there to do whatever he wanted." So, the CIA sort of stopped short of saying there was anything criminal or outright wrong about it, but that it probably showed some bad judgment. And his successor, who—you know, the CIA sent another senior officer to replace him in 2011. After our story came out, they announced that they were going to be bringing him home, and he has left as of, I believe, last few weeks.
AMY GOODMAN: But has the spying stopped?
MATT APUZZO: Well, right, so, you know, these programs are still in effect. I mean, we know that, for instance, one of the—one of the things we found out was that everybody in the City of New York who changes their name, you know, whether because they want to officially get rid of a married name or whether they just want to Americanize their name, like so many generations of immigrants have done, that is—that data is supplied to the NYPD from the court system. And then anybody who has a name that sounds like it might be from a Muslim country—so, you know, if Mohammed becomes John or John becomes Mohammed—then you’re going to get backgrounded, you’re going to have your travel history checked through federal databases. You know, they’ll build a sort of a criminal history or an employment history on you. Sometimes they’ll check immigration records or credit records. And then, in some cases, if they think there’s any red flags, they’ll actually send an officer out to interview you and say, "Why did you—why did you change your name?" And we know that that program—you know, the court officials tell us they continue to send the name records, you know, every few weeks to the NYPD. So, I mean, you know, certainly some of this is still going on.
But again, remember, the NYPD is saying this is necessary and appropriate to keep the city safe, so, you know, we wouldn’t expect that the police department would make any wholesale changes, nor were we asking them to. I mean, frankly, our goal in this was to allow people to have a discussion about where, 10 years after 9/11, we should be putting the marker down between, you know, sort of security and liberty. And you can’t have these discussions if—you know, if you don’t know what’s going on, if it’s just a black box where they say, "Trust us. We’re keeping you safe. You know, we have a 350-person intelligence division, a $60 million budget. We can’t even tell you what the command structure looks like or the organizational chart looks like or where the money is going." You know, that—
AMY GOODMAN: And it went beyond New York, as you pointed out in this continued series—
MATT APUZZO: Oh, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —from New Jersey to Connecticut, the angry statement of Richard Levin, president of Yale University, when he learned that New York police agents were on the campus of Yale investigating students.
MATT APUZZO: Right. Well, they weren’t on the campus of Yale, so there’s two things, right? And this is—this is one of the most fascinating things for me, having covered this. So, we reported last fall that the NYPD, using undercover officers and informants, was actively infiltrating Muslim student groups at, you know, City College in New York, CUNY schools inside New York City. And nobody really said anything. I mean, there wasn’t really much of a reaction. And then, early this year, we reported that, in addition to that, the NYPD also had a program where every day analysts would go online and go to the websites, blogs, listservs of Muslim student groups all around the Northeast—and that’s what they were doing at Yale and Columbia—and monitoring what people were saying. And, you know, people—scholars were ending up in the intelligence files—professors, students, in some cases—not for saying anything terrorism-related, but for saying, "Hey, here’s going to be a conference, an academic conference, and here’s the speakers who are going to be there." And so, to our knowledge, they weren’t on the ground infiltrating at Yale or, you know, these Ivy League schools, but just the monitoring of those websites touched off such outrage in the academic community. It was really fascinating, because that outrage did not happen when we were talking about actual infiltration of City College kids—
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go—
MATT APUZZO: —of working-class kids.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to Jawad Rasul, the student at City College—
MATT APUZZO: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: —who was among a number of Muslim college students spied on by the NYPD at schools throughout the Northeast. Rasul was named in a police report, revealed by your series—
MATT APUZZO: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —about a whitewater rafting trip he took along with friends that was monitored by an undercover informant. I asked Jawad Rasul for his reaction.
JAWAD RASUL: It’s really disheartening, to be honest. We are actually trying to be better American citizens, as much as we can. You know, like I said earlier, I try to buy American to help the American economy. And then these kind of things come out, and that—it really throws us back. And I think, honestly, it’s even hurting NYPD’s try and attempt at fighting homegrown terrorism, because these kind of tactics actually create more hatred towards them and the other law-enforcement agencies and really destroys the trust that any youth might have developed with the government.
AMY GOODMAN: That was City College student Jawad Rasul. His parents were afraid for him to come on the show, to make himself public, but he said he was named in the police report that came out in your series, Matt Apuzzo.
MATT APUZZO: Right, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And then—
MATT APUZZO: Well, I mean—yeah, sorry, go ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.
MATT APUZZO: Well, I was just going to say, you know, that that police report, which we made public and it’s on our website, ap.org/nypd, along with a number of documents, I mean, we wrestle with this idea of whether to name people. But, you know, sort of if you put a—if you just black everybody’s names out, you know, it leaves a possibility like, "Oh, my god, this—maybe this isn’t Jawad Rasul; maybe this is Osama bin Laden," you know? And so, when possible, we tried to leave people’s names in there, so people could see the documents in their entirety and make a decision, make their own—reach their own conclusion about what the documents say, what the police department was doing, and whether it’s, you know, where we want to be.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Matt, your most recent piece was about not just spying on the Muslim community, but going after progressive groups.
MATT APUZZO: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: For example, the NYPD following the journalist Jordan Flaherty down to New Orleans for a conference he was involved with.
MATT APUZZO: Yeah. So, the NYPD, one of the things they’re concerned about is keeping tabs on public demonstrations, which, sort of on the face of it, makes total sense, right? I mean, nobody wants Quebec riots, Seattle riots. Everybody wants to know ahead of time what to expect. But as—so, for doing that, the NYPD had—this intelligence division had undercover officers going down to New Orleans for a sort of a liberal community group gathering, basically talking about, you know, challenging trade agreements and opposed to the capitalist system we have, you know, seen as unfair by these groups. And there was nothing criminal, there was nothing terrorist-related talked about here, but it all made its way into police files. And Jordan, as you mentioned, was named in a police file for introducing a film on the plight of the Palestinians.
So, it was fascinating for us to see, you know, the length that the NYPD goes to keep tabs, well out—you know, New Orleans, well outside the city, to anything that could potentially happen in New York City. And most of what they were—what they recorded had no connection to New York City. So it really is—it just shows the transformation, again, of—from a police department that goes out and solves crimes to one that is basically an intelligence agency that tries to identify before—what’s going to happen before it happens. And some say that’s great, and that’s absolutely what we need to do, and others disagree. And our hope is that, you know, with the documents and the stories, that people can now make their own decision.
AMY GOODMAN: The New York Post has a headline, "Score One for NYPD-Bashing." They said, "Surprise, surprise: The Associated Press yesterday picked up a Pulitzer for its year-long, non-stop hit-job on the NYPD’s counterterrorism efforts." As we wrap up, Matt Apuzzo, your response? And are you continuing your series?
MATT APUZZO: Yeah, as I said before, it would be surprising to me if people didn’t have strong—this is an important issue, so it would be surprising to me if editorial writers and pundits and regular people didn’t have strong feelings about this one way or the other. You know, some of your viewers probably have strong feelings. The New York Post editorial staff has strong feelings. That’s what democracy is all about, right? And democracy needs information. And we try to provide that information so people can make informed decisions. So, not surprised that there are strong feelings. And again, this wasn’t a series we set out to do, so whether it continues, I think it continues if more information makes itself available. And we’ll go where the story leads.
AMY GOODMAN: Matt Apuzzo, I want to thank you for being with us. Again, congratulations. Matt is a reporter—
MATT APUZZO: Thanks a lot.
AMY GOODMAN: —for the Associated Press. He and his colleagues were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for their series of articles revealing the extensive domestic surveillance program deployed by the New York Police Department in the wake of 9/11.