- Matt Apuzzoreporter for the Associated Press and co-author of an investigative report published August 24, 2011, on surveillance and intelligence tactics increasingly employed by the New York City Police Department, called “With CIA Help, NYPD Moves Covertly in Muslim Areas.”
- Gadeir Abbasis a staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He has worked on cases of surveillance and government informants across the country.
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. [includes rush transcript]
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 they 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.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue now with our AP exposé. Matt Apuzzo is the reporter for the Associated Press who, with his colleague Adam Goldman, wrote this piece called “With CIA Help, NYPD Moves Covertly in Muslim Areas.” The NYPD, of course, being the New York Police Department.
The issue of the legality of the CIA gathering domestic intelligence—I wanted to bring in Gadeir Abbas with CAIR, which is the Council on American-Islamic Relations. You have been working on this case. What is the legality of this? What are the laws, Gadeir?
GADEIR ABBAS: Well, there are a few laws that are potentially being violated by the NYPD, possibly the FBI, as well as the CIA. So, in 1981, President Ronald Reagan issued an order, an executive order, restricting the activities of the CIA, and that restriction prevented the CIA from conducting spy operations domestically within the United States. That looks to be in violation, insofar as the CIA is enlisting a local intermediary to collect information. So that’s one potential violation of a federal—of an executive order.
The other is a federal law called the Privacy Act, that prevents government agencies from maintaining records on a person’s First Amendment activities unless there’s actually an investigation of criminal activity. Here, if the FBI or the CIA are maintaining any records that the NYPD has collected, you know, from hookah bars or from local mosques that weren’t collected regarding an actual investigation of criminal wrongdoing, that would be a violation of the Privacy Act. But each individual person that has been affected by the NYPD’s program here, their intelligence unit, would also have a reason to go to court to enforce their First Amendment rights.
So, the first level of this is that a program that is investigating a particular community, it’s essentially an institutional arrangement that is casting an institutional suspicion on an entire community and conducting an investigation, not of a crime, not of an individual, but of a community. That sends a signal to everyone else that that religion is somehow separate and distinct from all of the others, which may be a violation of the Establishment Clause. The government is there to maintain a neutrality, and here, we might not be seeing them doing that.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And were you surprised by the extent of this cooperation between the NYPD and the CIA and the level of involvement, working together, between the two groups?
GADEIR ABBAS: Yeah, it is breathtaking to see the detail of involvement that the CIA had—has had in NYPD law enforcement tactics. But what isn’t a surprise, because we’ve been hearing from American Muslims for years now, is it’s a matter of routine police technique to go to members of the American Muslim community and to proposition them to become informants.
AMY GOODMAN: The AP’s report details how the New York Police Department used census data to match undercover officers to ethnic communities, where they spent time in hookah bars and cafes, as you said, a practice some have characterized as racial profiling. In the video accompanying the story, former NYPD Officer Mordecai Dzikansky says that’s not the case. This is an excerpt of his comment.
MORDECAI DZIKANSKY: It’s not a question of profiling. It’s a question of going where the problem could arise. And thank God we have the capability, we have the language capability and the ethnic officers. I mean, that’s our—that’s our hidden weapon, the fact that we have officers from so many different countries who are now New Yorkers, and they want to keep New York safe.
AMY GOODMAN: Gadeir Abbas of CAIR, your response?
GADEIR ABBAS: I think it’s very revealing that the assumption that underlies the NYPD’s program is that the problem that the United States is trying to address of terrorism or acts of violence is a problem that is particularly attached to the Muslim community. And I think Mordecai’s words reveal very clearly that that’s the mindset and the mentality that leads to this outcome, and it’s a mentality that is—that the AP story highlights in great detail, but it’s a mentality that pervades all levels of law enforcement—the federal, state and local level.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Matt Apuzzo, your story not only raises questions about the relationship between the CIA and the police department in these activities, but also about the NYPD’s reach. For instance, the clip we played about a unit working in New Jersey, doing investigations in New Jersey of the New York Police Department, but never informing the local law enforcement authorities of what they were doing in their jurisdiction.
MATT APUZZO: Right. I mean, you know, the mindset, and the reason that that goes on, is—you know, is one that you can—I guess we can relate to, right? I mean, New York says, “Look, 9/11 showed us that we can’t just wait for somebody else to tell us, 'Hey, look, they're coming for New York.’” And so, New York has said, “We’re going to go out there, and we’re going to try to identify these problems before they arrive into Manhattan fully formed, because, by then, it’s almost too late.” So, you know, the NYPD regularly conducts undercover operations through the Special Services Unit, which is their undercover squad, outside of New York.
So, in 2009, the clip you played, there was a safe house in New Brunswick, New Jersey, just off of the Rutgers campus, that got exposed. They were running undercover operations and surveillance, you know, throughout New Jersey, and that was kind of their—that was their safe house, if you will. I mean, they operate in Pennsylvania. We know a couple instances where they’ve operated in Boston. You know, they feel like they—
AMY GOODMAN: They operate overseas, as well, is that right?
MATT APUZZO: They operate overseas, as well. You know, the overseas program is very interesting. They have officers stationed at 11 police departments abroad. And so, if a bomb goes off in—you know, in Jerusalem, the NYPD officer is on scene with the local officers, asking, you know, “How did this happen? How were the warning signs missed? What was the tactics that were used?” And oftentimes he’ll put the bomb squad guys in New York on the phone with the bomb squad guys in Jerusalem so that, you know, New York can be prepared.
You know, while I think the FBI bristles at that, you know, Congress did ask FBI Director Mueller about that, and he frankly said, “You know, look, I kind of can’t blame Ray Kelly for putting his officers overseas. If I were in his shoes, I’d probably do the same thing.” You know, I don’t think—I don’t think that, with the exception of the sort of the FBI agents who bristle at the idea of the NYPD having their own foreign guys, I think most people say that the foreign liaison services that NYPD has set up have been pretty good.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But the difference with the foreign services is that they’ve actually gotten an agreement with the local government to have this, whereas venturing into these other states where there are existing police forces of those localities and not even having any sort of relationship or notification to them seems to me a little strange.
MATT APUZZO: Right. I mean, they got—they have had a couple run-ins in Boston or in Massachusetts, you know, where one time there was a couple—there were a couple guys who were monitoring a house, and local cops in Massachusetts, you know, rapped on the window and was like, “Who the heck are you guys?” And since it wasn’t their territory, they kind of had to, you know, “OK, we’re NYPD cops,” and so that didn’t go over so hot. So, look, they ruffle some feathers, but I think, you know, the intel division would say, “Yeah, we ruffle some feathers, and some people don’t like it, just how aggressive we are, but this is exactly what New Yorkers want us to be.” And I mean, look, you can read the—you know, Juan, your New York Daily News editorial today said as much: this is exactly what we want our police department to be doing.
AMY GOODMAN: Matt Apuzzo, the beauty supply stores seem to be a particular hot spot, you wrote about, that they would scrutinize, the NYPD.
MATT APUZZO: Yeah, I mean, you can look at—right, I mean, you know, beauty supply stores is one example, you know, fertilizer places, anywhere you can buy—anywhere you can get scuba gear. I mean, look, these aren’t surprises. If you could buy—if you could go into a neighborhood and buy a large quantity of a chemical that could make an explosive, it makes sense for the police department to want to know where that is. What’s unique about the “rakers” is they’re looking for—you know, the Demographics Unit—is they’re looking for those hot spots, but they’re also keeping an eye on, you know, “Alright, well, what kind of books are being looked at in—you know, in this bookstore?” or, you know, they go into an internet cafe, and they keep—you know, the history files on the computer aren’t protected, so you can—you know, they’re public. You just—
AMY GOODMAN: You said they called for the names of all the Pakistani cab drivers in New York. They wanted the TLC—
MATT APUZZO: Yeah, that was—
AMY GOODMAN: —the taxi and limousine service—
MATT APUZZO: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —to hand that over.
MATT APUZZO: Yeah, early on, you know, before these programs got going, I think there was just this real sense of urgency. There was all these threat streams coming in. There were—you know, the NYPD didn’t have any informants. And so, they kind of took some really ad hoc ways of trying to go about getting informants. And one was they asked the taxi cab commission just to give them a rundown of all of the Pakistani cab drivers, so they could look for maybe anybody who got it fraudulently. And then you could use that as leverage to help get yourself an informant.
And the other way is they looked and said, “Look, let’s just go and do—step up our traffic patrols in Pakistani neighborhoods. And if you’re running a red light or you’ve got a broken tail light or whatever, you know, we can use that as the means for a traffic stop and then see if there’s an outstanding warrant or if there’s anything we can use here, and then try to flip him and make him an informant, use that as leverage.” You know, they were—in some ways, they were kind of like acts of desperation. I mean, it was what you do when you have no plan. And it’s—you know, and it’s three months after 9/11, and—
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask Gadeir Abbas’s response, but first, David Cohen, the man brought in from the CIA to work on this in the New York Police Department, who then brought in Larry Sanchez, who stayed under the—on the CIA payroll, under George Tenet, but was working with the New York Police Department. The New York Times, I have an editorial here from 1997, “Warrior Spies,” calling for David Cohen to be replaced as head of CIA operations in Washington, then he comes up to New York.
MATT APUZZO: I’m sorry. Was that for me or Juan?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that’s for you, Matt Apuzzo.
MATT APUZZO: OK, yeah. I mean, look, Dave Cohen has—I mean, he has a kind of an unprecedented career at the CIA, right? I mean, he was their top analyst; he was the deputy director for intelligence. And then he was also the deputy director for operations, and so he was also our top spy. You know, he’s seen it on both sides of the coin. And he really does have an unprecedented résumé. He’s also an incredibly divisive figure. He’s extremely confident. You know, he’s very smart. And he, you know, has quite a—you know, he’s known for his profanities. A lot of people don’t like him. But a lot of—I mean, a lot of people do like him. He’s—when I say “extremely confident,” a good example was, in a deposition, he was asked, “Do you have any—are you going to present any facts to back up these opinions?” and he said, “My opinions are my facts.” So, I mean, you know, look, Dave Cohen has a résumé to back up—you know, to back up the talk. I think NYPD went looking for somebody with that résumé, and they picked David Cohen to run their intel division. And I think if you asked Mayor Bloomberg or Commissioner Kelly, they would say he was absolutely the right guy for the job.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Gadeir Abbas, I’d like to ask you, your reaction when you hear this, requesting all the names of all the Pakistani cab drivers in New York? And what is CAIR calling for in this situation?
GADEIR ABBAS: So there is a level of outrage that has permeated the American Muslim community for years now, as law enforcement has viewed the American Muslim community as nothing more than a source of information that they can then utilize for further objectives. So, for instance, even the language that they use to describe the Muslim—the NYPD uses to describe the Muslim community in New York City is—they call it “human terrain.” So they’re essentially saying that these American Muslims in the metropolitan area are stepping stones for law enforcement agents to pursue whatever it is that they’re pursuing.
But there’s a sense here that David Cohen’s success, as Matt indicated, he has—he ascended very highly in the CIA, but now that he’s at the NYPD, his success in the public sphere is going to be measured by how many terrorism prosecutions he’s going to be able to bring to fruition. And that creates a perverse incentive. Thankfully, in this country, there aren’t lots of acts of terrorism being planned and carried out. But by creating a institutional structure, you’re providing a set of incentives for agents and government officials that perpetuates the suspicion of American Muslims, even where it’s not warranted. And I think the acts of desperation are a reflection of the fact that the suspicion that they’re casting is unjustified, to begin with.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re calling for a federal investigation?
GADEIR ABBAS: Yes. So, this is the type of—what the CIA is doing here is worthy of the Senate’s Foreign Intelligence—Senate’s Intelligence Oversight Committee’s time. The CIA should not be in the business of enlisting local intermediaries to conduct spy investigations on Americans. The DOJ should—they’ve promulgated guidelines to enforce the executive order that restricts the CIA’s activities inside the United States. But we’re not going to hold our breath for the government to act. The ruling—the injunction that was placed on NYPD back in the '80s for doing essentially the same thing that they're doing now—spying on innocent people and investigating their political activities—entitles people in New York to request certain records on their—that the NYPD maintains. So, those conversations are happening now, and legal options are being explored.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to look at the issue of the terror cases that have been brought around the country, leading some to ask, ”FBI, Federal Bureau of Investigation or Instigation?” So I’d like to ask you to stay with us.
GADEIR ABBAS: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: Gadeir Abbas, staff attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Matt Apuzzo, thanks very much for being with us, reporter for the Associated Press—
MATT APUZZO: Thanks.
AMY GOODMAN: —is co-author of the investigative report published yesterday called “With CIA Help, NYPD Moves Covertly in Muslim Areas.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, another exposé, this one by Mother Jones magazine. Stay with us.