If you’re a Muslim in New York City, the NYPD is breaking all sorts of rules to keep an eye on you.
Inside a nondescript red brick building on the periphery of New York City lies one of the most publicly known high-tech information centers. News headlines flicker on LED screens as electronic maps and international clocks set to the major cities of the world cover the walls. Twelve large flat-screen televisions hang from the ceiling, with each set to foreign broadcasts with language specialists monitoring and transcribing the programs. The building is encased in ballistic Sheetrock, has its own backup generator and is manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
This building does not belong to the Central Intelligence Agency. It’s the home of the New York Police Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau’s Global Intelligence Room. Since the attacks on the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001, New York City has taken it upon itself to stop future threats. Prior to 9/11, New York City was the setting of a previous terrorist attack — a truck bombing in an underground parking area at the World Trade Center complex.
Some have argued that considering that New York City has been the site of two of the three terrorist attacks from foreign combatants on American soil since Pearl Harbor, the city is justified in its extreme precautions — including stationing officers in London, Washington, Hamburg, Tel Aviv and Toronto; sending interrogators to Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen and Pakistan and maintaining a swarm of quick-strike anti-terrorism police units meant to intimidate and to show capability of force — to protect itself.
However, many feel that New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has improperly assumed responsibilities reserved solely for the federal government. In a recent report from the CIA’s inspector general, between 2002 and 2012 the CIA sent four agents to the NYPD’s counterterrorism unit without knowing what the agents could and could not do.
In one example, a CIA agent overseeing NYPD investigations was unaware that the CIA can only assist local law enforcement agencies regarding international terrorism. Domestic surveillance and investigations by the CIA are banned under Executive Order 12333. Another CIA agent attested to receiving “unfiltered reports about American citizens uninvolved in international terrorism.
Beyond the call of duty
In light of the NYPD counterterrorism unit’s history and allegations of improper actions, this revelation has been disturbing for many. “[The] problem goes far beyond one of perception,” Faiza Patel and Daniel Michelson-Horwitz wrote for DefenseOne. “We should be concerned that CIA involvement with local police will influence them to adopt a counterinsurgency mentality that is simply not warranted on home turf. When deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, the agency has to assume that it is working in a hostile environment. Its operations are necessarily covert. It is not restrained by the full panoply of constitutional rules that apply at home.”
In another unit, the Demographics Unit, which the NYPD denied existed as late as 2011, the New York police actively engaged for more than six years in spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on private conversations and maintaining constant monitoring on mosques. The group catalogued every Muslim in New York based on their last name, maintained databases on the daily lives on Muslims, infiltrated student groups and recorded and monitored sermons in mosques in an attempt to create an “early warning system” to terrorism that would offer a complete profile and track to find any potential terrorist in the city.
The NYPD has denied trolling in ethnic neighborhoods and insists it only follows leads. “The New York Police Department is doing everything it can to make sure there’s not another 9/11 here and that more innocent New Yorkers are not killed by terrorists,” NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said. “And we have nothing to apologize for in that regard.”
In a June 28, 2012 disposition before the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Thomas Galati, assistant chief for the NYPD and commanding officer of the NYPD Intelligence Division at the time, stated that, “Related to demographics,” the information that has come in “has not commenced an investigation.
“I never made a lead from rhetoric that came from a demographics report, and I’m here since 2006,” he said. “I don’t recall other ones prior to my arrival. Again, that’s always a possibility. I am not aware of any.”
The notion that a major police department is actively treating a demographic of American citizens as potential insurgents is an unsettling one. In a 2011 Associated Press report, it was highlighted that in New Brunswick, N.J., local police and the FBI stumbled upon a NYPD intelligence officer command center in a private apartment. The NYPD did not have permission to run the command center in New Brunswick.
For the most part, to this day, the extent of the NYPD’s counterterrorism actions are unknown. The NYPD, despite assuming the mantle as one of the nation’s counterterrorism task forces, conducts its counterterrorism activities without the consent of the city council or the federal government, which contributes hundreds of millions of dollars per year to the program. The extent of the agency’s overreach has many questioning if the NYPD not only exceeded its jurisdiction, but also knowingly violated the civil rights of an entire population.
“Proponents of the sprawling surveillance enterprise have argued that, regardless of its inefficacy, mere spying on a community is harmless because it is clandestine and that those who are targeted should have nothing to fear, if they have nothing to hide. Our findings, based on an unprecedented number of candid interviews with American Muslim community members, paint a radically different picture,” read the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition report, “Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and its Impact on American Muslims.” “We have found that surveillance of Muslims’ quotidian activities has created a pervasive climate of fear and suspicion, encroaching upon every aspect of individual and community life.”
“Surveillance has chilled constitutionally protected rights—curtailing religious practice, censoring speech and stunting political organizing. Every one of our interviewees noted that they were negatively affected by surveillance in some way — whether it was by reducing their political or religious expression, altering the way they exercised those rights (through clarifications, precautions, or avoiding certain interlocutors), or in experiencing social and familial pressures to reduce their activism. Additionally, surveillance has severed the trust that should exist between the police department and the communities it is charged with protecting.”
This assumption of responsibility by the NYPD continues a Machiavellian course of action Kelly and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have taken throughout Bloomberg’s 12-year term of seeking results without consideration of the costs of their actions. “I knew we couldn’t rely on the federal government,” Kelly told New York Magazine, in defense of the city’s assumption of federal authority. “I know it from my own experience. We’re doing all the things we’re doing because the federal government isn’t doing them. It’s not enough to say it’s their job if the job isn’t being done. Since 9/11, the federal government hasn’t taken any additional resources and put them here.”
“This is all about Ray Kelly’s contempt for the Feds and how they blew it, over and over again,” says a former member of the NYPD who knows Kelly well.
“The Feds kept getting information they didn’t act on,” he continues. “So what Kelly’s trying to do is say, ‘Hey, just in case they don’t fix all that stuff at the FBI and the CIA, we gotta find out the things they’re finding out. And we gotta act on them.’ Let’s face it: A lot of this isn’t rocket science. It’s cultivating sources, talking to informants, running down leads, getting search warrants, and following up on every piece of information you get. In other words, it’s good, solid investigative police work. The kind of thing New York cops do every day.”
The NYPD’s heavy-handed approach to keeping New York City safe, however, comes at the cost of New Yorkers, and — as with “stop and frisk” — the drive for results has exposed a lingering wound of implicit racism from City Hall. “Brooklyn is not Baghdad,” conclude Patel and Michelson-Horowitz. “American Muslim communities deserve to be treated as partners in the fight against terrorism and crime, not as hostile foreign populations.”