How the NYPD Turned Itself Into a Little CIA

The AP's Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman broke an extraordinary story today about the NYPD's unfettered and probably illegal intelligence operation—which employs "rakers" and "mosque crawlers" to troll Arab neighborhoods for information even when no crime is suspected—and its tight integration with the CIA, which has covert operatives deployed within the department. Basically, if you're a Muslim in New York, you either work for the NYPD or are being watched by them.

After 9/11, the NYPD essentially took the position that it could no longer rely on the federal government to protect the city from terrorism. So it set about establishing its own vast global intelligence operation, detailing officers to foreign capitals and stepping up its "outreach" to Arab and Muslim communities in New York. Much of that has been reported. What hasn't been reported is how little oversight the City Council applies to the operation, how closely the NYPD works with the CIA, and how little attention the department pays to civil rights laws as it targets New York's Arab neighborhoods. When the FBI's lawyers are so concerned about your ethnic profiling that they won't rely on your reports, you know you're in trouble.

So when New York's finest aren't busy shooting unarmed black men, causing massive internal injuries to detainees with plungers, or raping the women they're charged with protecting, here's what they're up to:

  • The NYPD created a "Demographic Unit" that sends undercover NYPD officers to ethnically matched neighborhoods to "hang out in hookah bars and cafes, quietly observing the community around them." They're known in the department as "rakers," and their job is to literally surveil the general populace for dissidents: "If a raker noticed a customer looking at radical literature, he might chat up the store owner and see what he could learn. The bookstore, or even the customer, might get further scrutiny. If a restaurant patron applauds a news report about the death of U.S. troops, the patron or the restaurant could be labeled a hot spot."
  • The Rakers are distinguished from "Mosque Crawlers," or informants tasked with attending Muslim religious services and reporting back to the NYPD—for no other reason than that the NYPD would like to keep tabs on people who are Muslim and exercising their right under the First Amendment to worship. "If FBI agents were to do that," Apuzzo and Goldman write, "they would be in violation of the Privacy Act, which prohibits the federal government from collecting intelligence on purely First Amendment activities." Indeed, the practice doesn't pass muster with the FBI's own general counsel—the woman charged with rubber-stamping the Feds' own extensive illegal surveillance operations: "Valerie Caproni, the FBI's general counsel, would not discuss the NYPD's programs 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.'" So, that means there's an FBI civil rights investigation into the NYPD's mosque surveillance starting right about now, right?
  • If you're even vaguely Middle Eastern and have done anything wrong, expect the NYPD to try to use that as leverage to turn you into an informant. The department created a special "debriefing unit" tasked with scanning arrestees for potential informants: "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." Example: The Department asked the city Taxi Commission to generate a list of all Pakistani cab drivers with minor infractions, in the hopes of inducing them to cooperate.
  • Look out ladies: The next NYPD cop who rapes you may in fact be a CIA plant! "Last month, the CIA deepened its NYPD ties even further. It sent one of its most experienced operatives, a former station chief in two Middle Eastern countries, to work out of police headquarters.... [H]e works undercover in the senior ranks of the intelligence division." That's interesting because it's actually illegal for CIA employees to gather intelligence inside the U.S.—unless they're dressed up as cops, apparently. Larry Sanchez, who helped build the NYPD's intelligence division, did so while on the CIA payroll. He maintained offices in both NYPD headquarters and the CIA's New York station while he hired and trained NYPD staffers. And the officer in charge of running the department's informant division studied tradecraft at the Farm, the CIA's training facility.
  • The NYPD's intel operation does not really care about the "NY" part of its name: It operates with impunity outside its jurisdiction. In 2009, a building superintendent in New Brunswick, N.J., discovered an empty apartment strewn with terrorist literature and surveillance equipment and called 911. It was an NYPD command center. "Once, undercover officers were stopped by police in Massachusetts while conducting surveillance on a house, one former New York official recalled. In another instance, the NYPD sparked concern among federal officials by expanding its intelligence-gathering efforts related to the United Nations, where the FBI is in charge, current and former federal officials said."

The whole story bears reading. The most maddening detail is the fact that most of the excesses began in 2002, when a federal court lifted rules that the NYPD had adhered to since the 1960s on how it went about gathering intelligence. The rules were part of a settlement to civil rights litigation over the fact that "during the 1960s and 1970s, the department had used informants and undercover officers to infiltrate anti-war protest groups and other activists without any reason to suspect criminal behavior." Which was apparently illegal, until it wasn't.

[Photo by Getty Images]