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Friday, September 02, 2011

The NYPD's "mosque crawlers" and "rakers" look for terror intel

The AP came out with this serious piece of investigative journalism last week, revealing an alleged secret NYPD unit that works with the CIA to gather intelligence on potential Muslim terrorists in the area. Excerpts:

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the New York Police Department has become one of the nation's most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies, targeting ethnic communities in ways that would run afoul of civil liberties rules if practiced by the federal government, an Associated Press investigation has found.

These operations have benefited from unprecedented help from the CIA, a partnership that has blurred the line between foreign and domestic spying.

The department has dispatched 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.

Neither the city council, which finances the department, nor the federal government, which has given NYPD more than $1.6 billion since 9/11, is told exactly what's going on.

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 veteran CIA officer, while still on the agency's payroll, was the architect of the NYPD's intelligence programs. The CIA trained a police detective at the Farm, the agency's spy school in Virginia, then returned him to New York, where he put his new espionage skills to work inside the United States.

The NYPD denied that it trolls ethnic neighborhoods and said it only follows leads. Police operations have disrupted terrorist plots and put several would-be killers in prison.

"The New York Police Department is doing everything it can to make sure there's not another 9/11 here and that more innocent New Yorkers are not killed by terrorists," NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said. "And we have nothing to apologize for in that regard."

AP's investigation is based on documents and interviews with more than 40 current and former New York Police Department and federal officials. Many were directly involved in planning and carrying out these secret operations for the department. Though most said the tactics were appropriate and made the city safer, many insisted on anonymity, because they were not authorized to speak with reporters about security matters.

...

Since 1985, the NYPD had operated under a federal court order limiting the tactics it could use to gather intelligence. 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.

To settle a lawsuit, the department agreed to follow guidelines that required "specific information" of criminal activity before police could monitor political activity.

In September 2002, [NYPD intelligence chief David] Cohen told a federal judge that those guidelines made it "virtually impossible" to detect terrorist plots. The FBI was changing its rules to respond to 9/11, and Cohen argued that the NYPD must do so, too.

"In the case of terrorism, to wait for an indication of crime before investigating is to wait far too long," Cohen wrote.

U.S. District Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. agreed, saying the old guidelines "addressed different perils in a different time." He scrapped the old rules and replaced them with more lenient ones.
It was a turning point for the NYPD.

...

With his newfound authority, Cohen created a secret squad that would soon infiltrate Muslim neighborhoods, according to several current and former officials directly involved in the program.

The NYPD carved up the city into more than a dozen zones and assigned undercover officers to monitor them, looking for potential trouble.

At the CIA, one of the biggest obstacles has always been that U.S. intelligence officials are overwhelmingly white, their mannerisms clearly American. The NYPD didn't have that problem, thanks to its diverse pool of officers.

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.

The unit, which has been undisclosed until now, became known inside the department as the Demographic Unit, former police officials said.

"It's not a question of profiling. It's a question of going where the problem could arise," said Mordecai Dzikansky, a retired NYPD intelligence officer who said he was aware of the Demographic Unit. "And thank God we have the capability. We have the language capability and the ethnic officers. That's our hidden weapon."

The officers did not work out of headquarters, officials said. Instead, they passed their intelligence to police handlers who knew their identities.

Cohen said he wanted the squad to "rake the coals, looking for hot spots," former officials recalled. The undercover officers soon became known inside the department as rakers.

A hot spot might be a beauty supply store selling chemicals used for making bombs. Or it might be a hawala, a broker that transfers money around the world with little documentation.

Undercover officers might visit an Internet cafe and look at the browsing history on a computer, a former police official involved in the program said. If it revealed visits to radical websites, the cafe might be deemed a hot spot.

Ethnic bookstores, too, were on the list. 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 goal was to "map the city's human terrain," one law enforcement official said. The program was modeled in part on how Israeli authorities operate in the West Bank, a former police official said.

...The NYPD declined to make Cohen available for comment. In an earlier interview with the AP on a variety of topics, Police Commissioner Kelly said the intelligence unit does not infringe on civil rights.

"We're doing what we believe we have to do to protect the city," he said. "We have many, many lawyers in our employ. We see ourselves as very conscious and aware of civil liberties. And we know there's always going to be some tension between the police department and so-called civil liberties groups because of the nature of what we do."

...Undercover agents like the rakers were valuable, but what Cohen and Sanchez wanted most were informants.

The NYPD dedicated an entire squad, the Terrorist Interdiction Unit, to developing and handling informants. Current and former officials said Sanchez was instrumental in teaching them how to develop sources.

For years, detectives used informants known as mosque crawlers to monitor weekly sermons and report what was said, several current and former officials directly involved in the informant program said. If FBI agents were to do that, they would be in violation of the Privacy Act, which prohibits the federal government from collecting intelligence on purely First Amendment activities.

...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.

Police are in prisons, too, promising better living conditions and help or money on the outside for Muslim prisoners who will work with them.

...NYPD's intelligence operations do not stop at the city line.

Cohen's undercover squad, the Special Services Unit, operates in places such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, officials said. They can't make arrests and, if something goes wrong — a shooting or a car accident, for instance — the officers could be personally liable.

But the NYPD has decided it's worth the risk, a former police official said.

With Police Commissioner Kelly's backing, Cohen's policy is that any potential threat to New York City is the NYPD's business, regardless of where it occurs, officials said.

[T]he NYPD's out-of-state operations have had success.

A young Egyptian NYPD officer living undercover in New Jersey, for example, was key to building a case against Mohamed Mahmood Alessa and Carlos Eduardo Almonte. The pair was arrested last year at John F. Kennedy Airport en route to Somalia to join the terrorist group al-Shabab. Both pleaded guilty to conspiracy.

Cohen has also sent officers abroad, stationing them in 11 foreign cities. If a bomber blows himself up in Jerusalem, the NYPD rushes to the scene, said Dzikansky, who served in Israel and is the co-author of the forthcoming book "Terrorist Suicide Bombings: Attack Interdiction, Mitigation, and Response."

"I was there to ask the New York question," Dzikansky said. "Why this location? Was there something unique that the bomber had done? Was there any pre-notification. Was there a security lapse?"

All of this intelligence — from the rakers, the undercovers, the overseas liaisons and the informants — is passed to a team of analysts hired from some of the nation's most prestigious universities. Analysts have spotted emerging trends and summarized topics such as Hezbollah's activities in New York and the threat of South Asian terrorist groups.

There's a lot more. Although the tone of the report is very negative, it does not appear that any of this is illegal. It also looks like the NYPD is going as close to the line as it can without crossing it.