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How the NYPD Acts Like the CIA with its Vast Spy Network

The New York Police Department has been engaged in a vast domestic spying operation targeting Muslims for surveillance, mapping and infiltration.


The following article first appeared in the Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here.

The stories are as remarkable for their banality as for their detail.

On February 8, 2006, the imam at a Bronx mosque advised congregants to boycott Danish products in response to caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published by a Danish newspaper. In November 2006, a member of the Muslim Students Association at the state university in Buffalo forwarded an e-mail to a Yahoo chat group advertising a conference featuring various Muslim scholars. And in April 2008, college students on a rafting trip discussed religion and prayed “at least four times a day.”

What the imam and students didn’t know was that members of the New York Police Department Intelligence Division were spying on them and recording their names and actions in secret reports forwarded to Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. None of these people had done anything wrong or even suspect: they were simply Muslims practicing their constitutionally protected freedoms of religious belief and speech. But for today’s police, that was enough to earn them a place in the department’s secret counterterrorism database.

As the Associated Press revealed in a Pulitzer Prize–winning series of exposés, the New York Police Department has been engaged in a vast domestic spying operation targeting Muslims for surveillance, mapping and infiltration. Stretching from the heart of New York City to the border of Canada—by way of Connecticut, New Jersey and Long Island—the program is as massive in scope as it is in ambition. In the name of total security, the NYPD treated basic acts of daily living as potential crimes, disregarding privacy and the freedom of speech and religion. Traditional barriers between foreign and domestic spying were partially collapsed. And the “war on terror” took lessons from the war on crime. In the process, the NYPD created perhaps the largest spying program by a local law enforcement agency on record—a sprawling effort to map entire communities that emerged from the toxic convergence of the permanent state of emergency gripping our society since 9/11 with the NYPD’s historic propensities.

The details of the operation are stunning. From an office at the edge of Brooklyn, a secret Demographics Unit dispatched “mosque crawlers” (informants) and “rakers” (undercover police officers) to engage in the “human mapping” of mosques, cafes, bookstores and other hangouts within “communities of interest.” These communities consisted—or still consist, as officials have not denied that the program is ongoing—of people with roots in twenty-eight predominantly Muslim countries (think Syria, Egypt, Iran and so on) as well as those designated “American Black Muslim.” Imams—including those reputed to be close to law enforcement—came in for special attention, but the truth is that no one was exempt. Cabdrivers, food-cart vendors and college students were all fair game, and not a single detail of their lives seemed too small to record.

“A Black Muslim male named Mussa was working in the rear of [the] store,” reported one covert operative canvassing Long Island businesses. Another sleuth saw fit to report—without a hint of irony—that the Al Jazeera news network wasn’t being shown at a Brooklyn tea room “because the owner feels it brings about extra scrutiny from law enforcement.”

Of course, the leaked NYPD files paint only a partial portrait. Guessing at the surveillance program’s full contours requires relying on anecdotal evidence gleaned from the accounts of targeted people. Since 2009 I have supervised the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project at the CUNY School of Law, and during this time my students, colleagues and I have represented many members of New York’s Muslim communities whom the NYPD Intelligence Division approached for gratuitous questioning unrelated to any crime. Our clients were interrogated about articles posted online and downloaded content; they were even asked their opinions regarding the Arab Spring. In the majority of our cases, as soon as CLEAR intervened with the authorities, the attempts at questioning ceased, further suggesting that the NYPD was on a massive fishing expedition, unmoored from any nexus of concrete criminal activity.

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