By Grey Fisher —
After a months-long investigation involving dozens of interviews with local and federal officials, the Associated Press has found that, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the New York Police Department has transformed into one of the “most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies” in the United States, through its covert operations in Muslim neighborhoods designed to root out terrorist plots. While the NYPD denies many of the controversial intelligence tactics described by AP’s interviewees, including covertly operating in Muslim neighborhoods, AP’s findings have civil liberties groups alarmed.
According to AP’s report, soon after 9/11, the NYPD brought on David Cohen, a retired thirty-five year CIA veteran, as the department’s first civilian intelligence chief. Cohen directed a comprehensive overhaul of the NYPD’s intelligence division and turned to the CIA for talent as he built the new operation.
Some consider the NYPD’s relationship with the CIA too close for comfort. The CIA is prohibited from spying on Americans and yet is reported to have trained the NYPD for essentially that purpose.
According to AP’s sources, Cohen created a secret squad of undercover agents to infiltrate Muslim neighborhoods. Taking advantage of its diverse police force, the NYPD assigned officers as undercover agents in the ethnic neighborhoods that matched their own backgrounds. These agents hung out and observed civilian life, surveillance designed to identify hot spots in the city for potential terrorist activity. For example, a bookstore would become a hotspot for further investigation if customers were observed looking at radical material in the store.
While this undercover surveillance may have been effective, it runs afoul of the FBI Investigative Guidelines, which require specific evidence before undercover agents may be used. The NYPD has agreed in federal court to follow the FBI Investigative Guidelines and denied that officers merely hang out in minority areas. The NYPD insists that its undercover agents only follow leads.
Also according to AP’s sources, the NYPD dedicated a squad called the Terrorist Interdiction Unit to the development and handling of informants. Tactics for developing sources included asking the city taxi commission to run a report on all of the city’s Pakistani cab drivers, looking for those who received their licenses fraudulently and thus might be susceptible to pressure to cooperate, recruiting potential informants in prisons, and leveraging arrests to persuade arrestees to become informants.
The most controversial types of informants are those called “mosque crawlers.” Mosque crawlers allegedly were informants who reported to the NYPD on what is being said in weekly sermons. Although the NYPD says that they never existed—and it is not clear if mosque crawlers are still used—the key informant in the foiled subway plot claimed to have attended hundreds of prayer services and collected information on people who showed no signs of radicalization.
If mosque crawlers were ever used, it is an example of how the NYPD has been able to engage in intelligence tactics prohibited at the federal level. The FBI would not be able to use mosque crawlers because such actions would violate the Privacy Act, “which prohibits the federal government from collecting intelligence on purely First Amendment activities.” Unlike the FBI, which has been scrutinized by civil liberties groups on Capitol Hill, there does not seem to be a significant check on the NYPD to ensure that it does not trample civil rights and resort to racial profiling in the name of national security.
While it remains to be seen how much of the AP’s report can be confirmed, it does seem clear that Cohen has unapologetically pushed the civil liberty bounds in order to keep New York safe. So far his tactics are working. There has not been another attack since 9/11 and, thanks to the NYPD, terrorist plots have been interrupted and innocent lives saved. Whether the civil liberties sacrifices are worth the additional security is a policy question that is likely to come to the fore due to AP’s report.