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Raking the Coals of Bigotry: How the NYPD's Surveillance Apparatus Targets Muslims

A new book details the story of how the Central Intelligence Agency worked with New York police to invade the private lives of Muslims.

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An informant would be hard-pressed to find any criminal activity inside the Bay Ridge office: the Arab American Association of New York serves the local immigrant community and helps people find jobs and navigate social services. The Association works closely with elected officials; Sarsour has been honored by the White House. Nonetheless, the Associated Press confirmed Sarsour’s fears when they reported that her organization was an NYPD target. A document published by the AP in late August details how the NYPD Intelligence Division, the branch of the police that carries out surveillance, wanted to find a person, preferably a male, to get “onto the board” of the Arab American group. The ideal informant “speak[s] Arabic” and is a “successful business owner.

The reporters who exposed how the police were targeting Rimawi’s and Sarsour’s organizations are Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, a duo of investigative journalists who have been heralded as the “new Woodward and Bernstein.” The two won a Pulitzer Prize for their series detailing NYPD spying on Muslims, a program that was implemented with the help of Central Intelligence Agency officials. Their new book,  Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit and bin Laden’s Final Plot Against America, builds on the muckraking Apuzzo and Goldman have carried out for the AP since August 2011.

Enemies Within is a meticulously sourced account. While the core of the book is told from the perspective of the FBI agents tasked with stopping a deadly serious al-Qaeda plot to blow up the New York City subways, the subplot of police spying on innocent Muslims is arguably more salient. The book tells the story of a changed America post-9/11, an America where the Constitution has been twisted to allow surveillance targeting a specific religious group.

This exposé of the NYPD's operations landed smack dab in the middle of a raging debate about domestic spying in the wake of revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) has built up a global surveillance dragnet.

The parallels between the NSA’s and NYPD’s spy programs are manifold. Until the press turned its prying eyes on them, both programs operated in secret. They both imported tactics honed overseas: the NYPD modeled its program on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, while the NSA tested the efficacy of mass surveillance during the height of the Iraq occupation. Both have a “collect it all” model of gathering as much information as possible, no matter how innocuous. And the NSA and NYPD both operate under a questionable veneer of legality.

For all the glaring similarities between the two programs, there’s also a significant difference, as Apuzzo and Goldman point out in a slightly retooled excerpt of the book in New York magazine. In the Northeast of the United States, the Muslim community has dealt with the surveillance state on a much more intense and personal level. The NSA sweeps up the metadata of US citizens — the numbers they are calling, where they are calling from, and the time and duration of the call. That can reveal a lot, but the impact on an individual pales in comparison to the invasive ways the NYPD has targeted the Muslim community.

As Apuzzo and Goldman reveal, the NYPD sends in “rakers” — police officers with Middle Eastern backgrounds — to “rak[e] the coals” of Muslim communities. These “rakers,” the core of what the police called the Demographics Unit (they changed the name in 2010 to Zone Assessment Unit), are the officers who visit businesses in Muslim communities in New York, catalogue the ethnicity of the owners and eavesdrop on conversations in an effort to “gaug[e]” sentiment. “Were [Muslims] laughing, smiling, or cheering at reports of US military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan? Did they talk Middle Eastern politics?” That data, largely on innocent people, goes into police files. The “rakers,” and a category of informants known as “mosque crawlers,” are also sent into mosques to keep tabs on what religious leaders and attendees say.

 
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