|A recently exposed decade-long relationship between the CIA and NYPD that shows how the two agencies have worked together to monitor Muslim communities in New York has alarmed lawyers and analysts [GALLO/GETTY]
Only two weeks before the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Associated Press has broken a story that reminds us of just how much America has changed during the last decade, and how the government – and as important, some of the country’s most powerful corporations – routinely intrude into the lives of communities and individuals in a manner that would few would have thought imaginable the day before the planes struck the World Trade Center.
After a lengthy investigation, the Associated Press has published a story detailing a highly secretive decade-long relationship between the CIA and the New York Police Department (NYPD), in which the two agencies have worked together in “a massive covert programme to monitor the Muslim communities” living in the New York metropolitan area and surrounding regions.
The program is troubling for a host of reasons. It involves potentially serious violations of federal law, including First Amendment protections. Morever, it bears a strong resemblance to programs launched during the Civil Rights and Vietnam era, which saw techniques, technologies and even personnel from the US military and intelligence communities deployed against citizens within the United States.
When military tactics and strategies drawn from the front lines of war are applied to radically different contexts, the results are rarely beneficial to the health of a democracy.
According to the AP report, “The [NYPD] has dispatched teams of undercover officers, known as ‘rakers,’ into minority neighborhoods as part of a human mapping program, according to officials directly involved in the program. They’ve monitored daily life in bookstores, bars, cafes and nightclubs. Police have also used informants, known as ‘mosque crawlers,’ to monitor sermons, even when there’s no evidence of wrongdoing. NYPD officials have scrutinized imams and gathered intelligence on cab drivers and food cart vendors, jobs often done by Muslims. Many of these operations were built with help from the CIA, which is prohibited from spying on Americans but was instrumental in transforming the NYPD’s intelligence unit.”
A Troubling Partnership?
Despite such prohibitions on spying on Americans, the NYPD and CIA have built a “partnership that has blurred the bright line between foreign and domestic spying.” The relationship has included a senior, active-duty CIA officer being hired by the NYPD to set up its intelligence programmes and another senior officer working as a “clandestine operative” inside police headquarters, and the CIA training of at least one police detective at the agency’s spy school.
Having watched the World Trade Center fall with my own eyes and then had to cope with a newborn son breathing in the soot and toxin-tainted air for weeks after, it’s hard not to sympathize with the NYPD’s willingness to “push the envelope” of police procedures in order to protect New Yorkers from a similar attack. It’s also hard not to agree with the assessment by NY cops that they can never again rely on the federal government to protect New York and therefore must become an active player in gathering and acting on intelligence that might affect the city’s eight million citizens.
Indeed, the NYPD’s “success” in these operations points out the weakness that still hampers effective intelligence work by the American intelligence community: Most CIA officers are white men who could never blend into a Muslim community; but the NYPD’s 34,000 officers reflect the ethnic and religious mosaic of New York, providing it with a host of Arab and South Asian officers who speak the languages and intimately know the cultures, making it much easier for them, effectively, to spy on their communities.
And it’s clear that this is what the NYPD is doing, having become, in the AP’s words, “one of the country’s most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies.” Intelligence-read, spy-agencies spy; they aren’t set up primarily to look for evidence of crimes, but to gather intelligence, knowledge that might later be useful do shape policies or influence the behaviour of the groups or communities being surveilled.
Police are supposed to monitor citizens only to the extent there is evidence or sufficient suspicion of criminal activity or its planning. But the AP reports that in many cases members of the unit go out of their way not to have their information, or even their existence, brought to a court of law.
Simply put, if the intelligence that the NYPD intelligence unit is gathering is not useful to the judicial process, then it’s not police work, it’s spying. If Americans think being spied on by their government isn’t such a big deal, they can talk to the millions of Arabs who’ve rebelled in good measures because of decades of such practices, or the citizens of former Communist countries in Eastern Europe. All of these governments also justified spying with the need to “protect” the state and citizens from potentially dangerous people. But it always ends the same way.
Yes, the United States is not Mubarak-era Egypt, or East Germany under Erich Honecker. But Americans have already lost – or rather, given up-significant liberties since September 11, with the Patriot Act and the more aggressive tactics of the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies as well as the FBI. The average citizen might not notice or even care about these restrictions; indeed, a huge section of the American public supports even more intrusive monitoring of their fellow citizens and even the criminalisation of forms of dissent against what they deem to be the correct path.
Since 9/11 Federal agents have once again infiltrated the peace and and anti-corporate globalization movements in the US, something with brought far greater condemnation during the Civil Rights and Vietnam War eras than it has now. Moreover, a climate of fear has been created in the mainstream media and even academia as a result of the the delegitimation of any points of view that challenge the supposed national consensus on issues related to the war on terror. This has allowed the war and the trillions being spent to prosecute it to continue as planned for a decade, with no end in sight.
Violating the Law
Moreover, the NYPD Intelligence Unit, under the guise of its CIA handlers, has engaged in similar activities, in particular infiltrating and helping to detain protesters at the Republican National Convention in 2004 and the demanding that detainees answer questions about their political affiliations, activism and feelings about George W. Bush.
Even putting aside the clear cases of politicised policing, there are grave doubts about the legality of the operations of the unit. In 1985 the NYPD was put under a federal court order that prohibited gathering intelligence not directly related to criminal activities after it was discovered that the department had infiltrated anti-war groups that were not engaged in any suspicious behavior. But the CIA-loaned head of the intelligence unit, David Cohen, convinced a federal judge to loosen these rules, after which the unit violated its promise to abide by the FBI’s investigative guidelines in all its investigations, using “rakers” and “mosque crawlers” in the Muslim community that essentially trolled the community for hints not merely of criminal behaviour, but anti-government sentiment.
The Muslim community has long had problems with the FBI’s trolling activities, which continues to be so aggressive that, as one activist explained to me, just recently a Libyan was approached to be an informant by the Bureau and was so scarred by the encounter that he was prepared to return to Libya at the height of Gaddafi’s assault on his people. The harm to relations between the Bureau and the Muslim community from these actions is hard to overestimate, according to officials at the Council on American Islamic Relations. “The FBI’s best line of defense against terrorism is the Muslim community. These actions have only made that relationship harder to sustain.”
Indeed, even the FBI has refused to accept reports from the intelligence unit because of fears it has run afoul of the law; the AP report quoted one FBI official implicitly criticized the policy of mosque crawling.
The problem, according to CAIR attorney Gadeir Abbas is that: “the Privacy Act [which prevents political investigations] is a federal law that only applies to federal agencies. It makes it illegal for those agencies to maintain records about a person’s first amendment activities unless those activities are pertinent to an authorised law enforcement activity. But because the Privacy Act does not pertain to state or municipal agencies, the NYPD can’t violate the Privacy Act.”
This doesn’t mean that the NYPD is off the hook. Abbas continued, explaining that “the First Amendment protects our right to associate freely with one another. An investigation of a community (rather than of a crime or a particular person) unlawfully chills the rights of persons within that community. Furthermore, the Establishment Clause requires NYPD to maintain neutrality between all religions. Their intelligence unit appears to be failing to maintain that neutrality by institutionalising suspicion of all things Islamic.”
Is New York Occupied Territory?
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the intelligence unit’s activities is who and what it is modeling itself after: the activities of the Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank. The unit uses a “debriefing programme” that singles out “young Middle Eastern men” who’ve been arrested for any offense, even if it has nothing to do with terrorism, to try to turn him into an informer. It has even sent officers into Muslim neighbourhoods to look for any reason to pull over people, even the most minor traffic infraction like a non-working headlight.
Such practices are quite similar to the long-standing and much abused Israeli practice of arresting young Palestinians for meaningless offenses and then, once in detention, putting pressure on them to become collaborators – offering them money, medical help for sick family members or other incentives, as well as threats depending on whether or not they comply. This is precisely what the NYPD is today doing.
Essentially, the police department’s goal with such activities is to “map the city’s human terrain” along the model of “how Israeli authorities operate in the West Bank,” according to one former police official. What seems to be lost on the NYPD and even the AP report’s authors is that the West Bank is occupied territory, the Israeli intelligence agencies operating there systematically engage in actions – illegal detention, kidnapping and even murder – that violate international law.
If the way the Israelis manage an occupied population is a model for NYPD intelligence activities, we have to ask whether they are treating the city’s Muslim community as an occupied population, and if so, how long it might be before young, angry Muslim New Yorkers, start behaving like their Palestinian counterparts, and if that occurs, whether the NYPD would accept any responsibility for that development? Probably not; indeed, it would, as in Israel, just lead to even more intensive and intrusive spying on the community, perpetuating a vicious cycle that would benefit no one except the corporations who are raking in unprecedented profits supplying the technology and even personnel for these programmes.
Bush to Obama – Bad to Worse?
The activities of the NYPD’s intelligence unit can’t be understood outside of the context of the long and recently reactivated history of militarisation of American law enforcement. The 1947 charter of the CIA prohibited it from spying against Americans, in good measure because then President Truman feared political abuses by the agency. But despite that prohibition, the CIA did from spy on Americans during the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras in clear violation of its mandate. Among the most infamous programs we know about was the MHCHAOS program, also known as “Operation Chaos,” which spied on as many as 7,000 members of the peace movement during the 1960s and 1970s.
The FBI ran a similarly notorious series of program, dubbed “COINTELPRO” (short for Counter Intelligence Program), which conducted surveillance on, infiltrated and attempted to discredit and disrupt groups deemed politically subversive, or potentially so.
Today the CIA, FBI, and it seems, the NYPD, are involved in a tangled and troubling relationship that is bringing together the worst of these past programmes in a 21st century redux, using the Patriot Act, ideologically supportive courts, subservient lawmakers and a broadly incurious citizenry to achieve their aims.
From the local perspective, since 9/11 the transformation of part of the NYPD into an intelligence bureaucracy mirrors the increasing militarization of police forces across the country into a sprawling, almost unimaginably large system. Last year the Washington Post ran a four-part series titled “Top Secret America” which argued that “nine years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the United States is assembling a vast domestic intelligence apparatus to collect information about Americans, using the FBI, local police, state homeland security offices and military criminal investigators. The system… collects, stores and analyzes information about thousands of US citizens and residents, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing.”
The system has become so large, secretive and unwieldy that it has created an “alternative geography” in the United State that comprised some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programmes related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States, with an estimated 854,000 public and private employees involved.
Besides Israel, another source of the “expertise” currently being utilized by the NYPD is the US military and intelligence forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are, to be sure, not the most promising models if one cares about civil liberties, the rule of law, and democracy. While initiated by President Bush, the system has grown substantially under President Obama, leading one civil rights leader to complain to me that “for many of us, the problem isn’t that Obama is as bad as Bush, it’s that in many ways his administration is actually worse than its predecessor, with more use of state secrets privilege to prevent parties to criminal or civil cases from accessing relevant information, and more use of FBI infiltrating communities.”
Where the Rule of Experts Leads
Most important, both he FBI and the NYPD have hired so-called “experts” on Islam and the Muslim world to train their personnel who are clearly Islamophobes with a record of extremist views and false claims about Muslims in the US and Islam more broadly, such as Ramon Montijo, who has taught classes on terrorism and Islam to law enforcement officers all over the country and believes that “most Muslims in the United States want to impose sharia law here. They want to make this world Islamic. The Islamic flag will fly over the White House… My job is to wake up the public, and first, the first responders.”
Other “experts,” some of them Muslim converts to the conservative wing of Evangelical Christianity or former intelligence officials with longstanding ties to the hard right of American politics, “teach” similar “expertise to American law enforcement personnel. They argue that Muslims are engaged in a “stealth jihad” against the US and that police “need to look at the entire pool of Muslims in a community,” through monitoring Muslim student groups and local mosques and tapping their phones. Former CIA director R. James Woolsey and former deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin (who was roundly criticised for making inflammatory remarks against Muslim while in uniform) routinely offer their support for such experts.
Lest we assume that the NYPD has been safe from such infiltration, the reality says otherwise. Personnel have been shown films such as “The Third Jihad” a rank anti-Muslim piece of propaganda which had a strong influence on Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. More disturbing, however, are the policies that such beliefs help justify. As one of the main CIA officials presently working with the NYPD is Larry Sanchez, explained in 2007 testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, the key to spotting “signs of radicalisation” in New York Muslim communities was “viewing innocuous activity, including behaviour that might be protected by the First Amendment, as a potential precursor to terrorism.”
If the NYPD, which for all its faults is still one of the better police forces in the United States, can be supervised by someone who thinks free speech is a natural precursor to terrorism, we can only imagine what officials in far less cosmopolitan jurisdictions must be thinking. Indeed, when Sanchez gave his testimony, no one on the Committee took issue with that remark. Why should they, as the US government is today so involved in monitoring free speech and dissenting politics that Sanchez’s claim is not merely unremarkable, it’s not worthy of a second thought.
That such remarks have become unremarkable might be Osama bin Laden’s most enduring victory.
Mark Levine is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House 2008) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.