Two weeks after an Associated Press investigation exposed the New York Police Department (NYPD)’s “demographic units” used to spy on a wide array of Muslim New Yorkers, a journalist has published startling new details that reveal the breadth of that operation. The details are sure to raise new alarms in the Muslim-American community in New York City (NYC) as the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks approach.
Leonard Levitt, a long-time writer on the NYPD beat, reports:
The New York City Police Department has been spying on hundreds of Muslim mosques, schools, businesses, student groups, non-governmental organizations and individuals, NYPD Confidential has learned.
The spying operation has targeted virtually every level of Muslim life in New York City, according to a trove of pages of Intelligence Division documents obtained by NYPD Confidential.
The documents do not specify whether the police have evidence or solid suspicions of criminality to justify their watching the Muslim groups.
The breadth and scope of the surveillance described in the documents suggest that the police have been painting with a broad brush and may have targeted subjects without specific tips about wrongdoing.
Specifically, Levitt reveals exactly who the NYPD spied on:
The NYPD’s spying operation has compiled information on 250 mosques, 12 Islamic schools, 31 Muslim student associations, 263 places it calls “ethnic hotspots,” such as businesses and restaurants, as well as 138 “persons of interest,” according to the Intel documents.
Police have singled out 53 mosques, four Islamic schools and seven Muslim student associations as institutions of “concern.” They have also labeled 42 individuals as top tier “persons of interest.”
At least 32 mosques have been infiltrated by either undercover officers, informants, or both, according to documents, which are dated between 2003 and 2006 and marked “secret.”
The NYPD has also been monitoring Muslim student associations at seven local colleges: City, Baruch, Hunter, Queens, LaGuardia, St. John’s and Brooklyn.
The department calls the two student groups at Brooklyn and Baruch colleges “of concern” and has sent undercover detectives to spy on them, the documents reveal.
The department defines a Muslim student association as “a university based student group, with an Islamic focus, involved with religious and political activities.”
The documents reveal that an Intelligence Division Cyber Unit has monitored MSAs at Brooklyn, City and Queens colleges.
The department also lists 10 non-governmental organizations as “of concern.” According to the documents, all 10 organizations have been spied upon by NYPD undercovers, informants, detectives with the Joint Terrorist Task Force or what the documents describe as a “secondary.”
On the NYPD list of 42 top tier “persons of interest” are: a corrections officer, a former imam, an un-indicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, a lecturer at Brooklyn College and what the department describes as a “Brooklyn College MSA member [who] has expressed desire to be a suicide bomber in Palestine.”
The police have spied on all these people with either an undercover officer, an informant, or both, the documents say.
The spying operation–which appears to run afoul of a 2004 NYC law that prohibits racial and ethnic profiling by the NYPD–was created by former CIA agent David Cohen. Cohen has previously been criticized for helping spearhead an expansive NYPD operation that saw the department travel the globe to monitor social justice activists ahead of the 2004 Republican National Convention.
Muslim-American and civil liberties groups have slammed the NYPD operation. A statement by the Muslim-American Civil Liberties Coalition demands:
• the New York City Council to investigate and oversee the NYPD’s operations, as well as a City Comptroller Audit;
• the Obama Administration to initiate a federal investigation into the extent to which the CIA has engaged in domestic spying within the United States, in violation of law and its manadate;
• Congress and the New York State Senate to hold hearings into the NYPD’s, FBI’s, and CIA’s surveillance and policing practices in Muslim communities with a focus on the role of informants;
• Congress and New York State Senate to pass enforceable anti-racial profiling legislation;
• NYPD and the Department of Justice to revise their internal guidelines to disallow the use of surveillance and informants absent suspicion of specific criminal activity.
The response to the relevations about the NYPD casting a large net over NYC Muslims is by no means the first time civil liberties and Muslim-American advocacy groups have clashed with the NYPD. As I reported for the Gotham Gazette last November:
Arguably the biggest irritant came when the police department released a 2007 report, titled Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. The report detailed the process by which it saw some American Muslims as being “radicalized” into terrorists and said that, while Americans Muslims are “more resistant to radicalization than their European counterparts, they are not immune.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations promptly criticized the report, saying, “Its sweeping generalizations and mixing of unrelated elements may serve to cast a pall of suspicion over the entire American Muslim community.” In the wake of the report, the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition formed and critiqued the report for presenting “a distorted and misleading depiction of Islam and its adherents.”
Following meetings with Muslim organizations, the police department quietly issued a two-page clarification that stressed that the “NYPD’s focus on al Qaeda inspired terrorism should not be mistaken for any implicit or explicit justification for racial, religious or ethnic profiling.”
While Muslim organizations welcomed the clarification, criticism of the report remains.
“It’s not clear what the NYPD really thinks, because it’s leaving the bulk of its assertions and its conclusions in place,” said Faiza Patel, who works with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Project. The clarification “didn’t address all of [the Muslim community's] concerns. The way it was done — really kind of hidden there — makes it seem as if the police department is talking out of two sides of its mouth.”
A separate Associated Press article on the NYPD documents states that they “paint the clearest picture yet of how the past decade’s hunt for terrorists also put huge numbers of innocent people under scrutiny as they went about their daily lives in mosques, restaurants and social groups. Every day, undercover officers and informants filed reports from their positions as ‘listening posts’ inside Muslim communities.”
The expansive intelligence operation is representative of perhaps the most enduring legacy of the September 11 attacks: the harassment and surveillance of the Muslim-American community and the alarming rise of a national security state that strips away Americans’ civil liberties.