The New York Police Department has been gathering domestic intelligence in ethnic communities in ways that would violate civil liberties if practiced by the FBI or CIA, an Associated Press investigation has found.
In September 2002, David Cohen, a 35-year veteran of the CIA, joined the NYPD as the first civilian intelligence chief. He had no police experience but he was the former head of CIA operations and he quickly went to work to lift laws that protected New Yorkers from unwarranted spying.
Since 1985, the NYPD had operated under a federal court order limiting the tactics it could use to gather intelligence. To settle a lawsuit, after they were caught infiltrating anti-war activists groups in the 1960-70s, the department agreed to follow guidelines that required specific information of criminal activity before police could monitor political activity.
But Cohen went to court and told a federal judge that those guidelines made it “virtually impossible” to detect terrorist plots. The same month Cohen joined the NYPD, U.S. District Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. agreed, saying the old guidelines “addressed different perils in a different time” and the 1985 laws were replaced with more lenient policies.
Cohen looked through NYPD’s diverse 34,000-person police force looking for officers of color that could infiltrate ethnic communities, mostly Middle Eastern cops who could infiltrate Middle Eastern neighborhoods. He called these informants “rakers.” Cohen said he wanted the squad to “rake the coals, looking for hot spots,” the AP reports.
These so-called hot spots ranged from a beauty supply stores selling chemicals used for making bombs. Or an Internet cafe where undercover officers who would comb a users Internet browsing history and found what they deemed “radical websites.” Ethnic bookstores, money wiring places, the list goes on.
The goal was to “map the city’s human terrain,” one law enforcement official told the AP. The program was modeled in part on how Israeli authorities operate in the West Bank, a former police official said.
That’s why, former officials told the AP, police regularly shredded documents discussing rakers.
Suspicious activity like:
NYPD sought a rundown from the taxi commission of every Pakistani cab driver in the city, and produced an analytical report on every mosque within 100 miles, officials said.
They dispatched more officers to Pakistani neighborhoods and, according to one former police official directly involved in the effort, instructed them to look for reasons to stop cars: speeding, broken tail lights, running stop signs, whatever. The traffic stop gave police an opportunity to search for outstanding warrants or look for suspicious behavior. An arrest could be the leverage the police needed to persuade someone to become an informant.
Using census data, the department matched undercover officers to ethnic communities and instructed them to blend in, the officials said. Pakistani-American officers infiltrated Pakistani neighborhoods, Palestinians focused on Palestinian neighborhoods. They hung out in hookah bars and cafes, quietly observing the community around them.
Police are in prisons, too, promising better living conditions and help or money on the outside for Muslim prisoners who will work with them.
To identify possible informants, the department created what became known as the “debriefing program.” When someone is arrested who might be useful to the intelligence unit – whether because he said something suspicious or because he is simply a young Middle Eastern man – he is singled out for extra questioning. Intelligence officials don’t care about the underlying charges; they want to know more about his community and, ideally, they want to put him to work.
Early in the intelligence division’s transformation, police asked the taxi commission to run a report on all the city’s Pakistani cab drivers, looking for those who got licenses fraudulently and might be susceptible to pressure to cooperate, according to former officials who were involved in or briefed on the effort.
Valerie Caproni, the FBI’s general counsel, would not discuss the NYPD’s programs with AP but said FBI informants can’t troll mosques looking for leads. Such operations are reviewed for civil liberties concerns, she said.
“If you’re sending an informant into a mosque when there is no evidence of wrongdoing, that’s a very high-risk thing to do,” Caproni said. “You’re running right up against core constitutional rights. You’re talking about freedom of religion.”