TIM Live Exclusive Interview: Inside the NYPD’s spying program

TIM Live Exclusive Interview: Inside the NYPD’s spying program

*Editor’s note, this interview was conducted in the Fall of 2013.

TIM LIVE talks to AP reporter Matt Apuzzo to discuss his latest book, “Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit and Bin Laden’s Final Plot Against America” and his Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporting about the NYPD surveillance of Muslims in New York and labeling of mosques as terrorist organizations.  In conversation with Amina Chaudary via google plus.

Video & transcript below.

TIM: This is our first TIM Live discussion today. Our objective is to bring interesting people, thoughts, ideas, and perspectives to a wider audience using the best of multimedia today and we hope to conduct these conversations as part of our TIM editorial efforts. Today, we’ll be speaking with the AP writer, who’s been closely following the story of the NYPD secret intelligence operations that have been focused on Muslims since September 11, 2001. Matt Apuzzo has published numerous articles and a book about NYPD spying called “Enemies Within.” And what he uncovered were the hundreds of mosques, businesses, and dozens of Muslim student groups, entire neighborhoods, that were racially profiled, and were filed into this NYPD spying initiative. More importantly, as the AP site reveals that this was supported by the CIA, which cannot spy on Americans, but played a vital role in the project. And even more frightening is their usage of Muslims to do a lot of the surveilling. It’s significant of why we’re doing this recording today, it’s one day after the 12th anniversary of September 11, and even more relevant that exactly at this time right now, is the first court hearing for Raza vs the City of New York, which is challenging the unconstitutional NYPD surveillance program. For our listeners, Matt, that are not familiar with the story, could you go over the basics, just to get started, and what exactly was the NYPD doing, and in your opinion, should Americans be concerned about this or not?

Matt Apuzzo: Well, after 9/11 police commissioner Ray Kelly came to the NYPD and he decided, we can’t rely solely on the federal government to keep the city safe. We need our own robust intelligence service that is going to provide the NYPD with information that the federal government just had been just really bad at sharing before 9/11. So, one of his first acts was – and we explore this in great detail on the book – one of his first acts was to call Dave Cohen, who had recently retired as the head of the clandestine service of the CIA. And he convinced Dave to become the new Deputy Commissioner of the NYPD for intelligence. And it’s worth talking about what the CIA’s job is. The CIA’s charter is to subvert the laws of foreign government and to operate where the constitution doesn’t apply. So, it was a big – it was a revolutionary moment in American police to take somebody, with a CIA background, and put him inside the NYPD. He had no law-enforcement experience, so it really was – it represented a change in mindset.

Now, you can say that it was a bad move, it was a good move, it was revolutionary whether we’re talking about it as just a bold creative move, or something that’s more troubling, I think that’s for the people to decide. And then, what Dave Cohen did was Dave called back down to CIA headquarters and said, look, we need you to send up somebody who can – who can be kind of like my right-hand man, somebody who’s active duty, and the CIA sent them Larry Sanchez. And Larry is a career CIA guy and he was still there, unlike Cohen who was retired, he was still there. He had a CIA badge and allowed in access to all the CIA’s intelligence and he had an NYPD card that allowed him direct access into the NYPD system. So, the CIA really helped to build these programs and when I say programs, one of the things they had was this thing called the demographics unit. The demographics unit were plain-clothes detectives, typically from Arab and South Asian countries. And their job would be just to go out in the neighborhoods and hangout. And so, they go to a halal butcher, or they would go to a hookah bar or they go to a coffee shop, and they just hang out, and they make notes. And they’d say, I observed a Pakistani male behind the counter who served us food, his name was Ahmad, he says he’s from this part of Pakistan, he says he goes to this kind of – this mosque, he appears devout in his attire, the clientele appears devout, they were watching Aljazeera, or they weren’t watching Aljazeera, they talk about politics, they were opposed to drone strikes, they were very concerned – they were very critical with the American foreign policy. In one instance, we saw – they said, these two men were speaking about the State of the Union address. And the reason that they decided that that was significant is that they were talking about the State of the Union address in Urdu. So, they said, well, it’s significant because they’re Urdu speakers and so we needed to know where the Urdu speakers are and that is significant. So, I mean it’s just really get down to – it was as fundamental sort of seismic shift in policing strategy at the NYPD.

TIM: The problem is that the NYPD surveillance or spying is not new, it especially did not necessarily exist after September 11, it goes back to the 1900s. There was the NYPD having a hand in creating the New York Chapter of the Black Panthers for example, and then writing people down, who decided to join, and in the 60s and 70s you talk extensively about that as well. The only problem now is that this is uniquely targeted to Muslims. So, is this an example of the government pushing its bounds because of unique political context that’s created about Muslims in the current age of terrorism? People are less likely to protest because of the latency of Islam and Muslims in the America today.

Apuzzo: Yeah, there’s a lot going on there. So, 1960s and 70s, as you’ve said, they had infiltrated student groups, antiwar protesters, sort of extreme left wing organizations, hazardous organizations, as you said, they basically started the New York Chapter of the Black Panthers and then built files on everybody who joined. And then in the 1970s there was a big lawsuit, and the judge, said, you know what, come together and let’s try to come up with some rules that you’re going to follow going forth. And the NYPD said, okay look, we’re not going to build files on first amendment in protective speech unless there’s evidence that it’s really to a crime. I mean I have the ability to say pretty much everything I want about my government until I start saying, let’s go hurt people, let’s go kill people, let’s go commit crimes. The idea was, you know what, you can get up and say, I’m against – I’m against our policy in Iraq, but you can’t get up and say, and it’s our duty to start killing Americans because of that. So, the deal was, back then, we will all put you in a police file based on your first amendment speech until there’s an evidence of a crime. So, that was the rule, that was the way of the world until 9/11, and of course everything changed. And so, David Cohen went to the court and said, look, those old rules, they just don’t service well anymore. We can’t wait for a crime to happen, or if there’s going to be evidence of a crime before we started investigating. So, we need to investigate before a crime is committed. You know what the NYPD did, and frankly, they weren’t sneaky or hidden about any of this. They actually went to congress at one point and they said, we’ve realized at the NYPD, we need to start thinking differently about activities that are protected by the first and fourth amendment and start to view them through a lens of then being precursors to terrorism. So, it’s not unique – as you said, it’s not unique to what – to Muslims right now, but what happened is 9/11, right, and so 9/11 rebuilt what had been fairly well dismantled after the 1960s.

TIM: Right, and again, David Cohen, as you’ve quote him, says that in the case of terrorism to lay forth an indication of crime before investigating is too late far too long. But this is obviously a concern for American Muslims, particularly many of the plaintiffs, who have at least come out with a lawsuit against the NYPD, demonstrating that, well, what exactly did we do wrong. The real question though is how effective is this. I mean, take for example, the Boston Marathon, right. So, here you have somebody who actually was for a time being surveillance by intelligence agencies but he’s a person who met with the Chechen rebels, he didn’t necessarily go to the mosque, in fact, he was kicked out of the mosque, but he’s running around building bombs, and then was not caught in time, and actually caused the devastation of that was the Boston marathon. But you have the NYPD and other intelligence focusing on say Abdullah who goes to the mosque with his four-year old son and just being a Muslim attending right there.

Apuzzo: Supporters of the NYPD would say, well, if we were in the Mosque when Tamerlan got thrown out, we would have known.

TIM: Would have known, right.

Apuzzo: But let’s look at what our book does, which is, we take a look at the most significant dangerous Al-Qaeda plot against the United States since 9/11, and that is the plot hatched by Najibullah Zazi, a kid from Queens, Americanized, was in favor of the US invasion of Afghanistan, but who dropped out of school, became kind of like a loner, and was looking for something bigger than himself. And through online sermons by Anwar al-Awlaki, the radically eminent preacher, became more and more convinced that it was his duty as a Muslim to take up arms and fight against the United States. So, he and his buddies got on a plane and they flew out to Peshawar, and the goal was to train with the Taliban and to fight US troops in Afghanistan. But what happened was they just bumbled their way across the FATA and turned out they got swooped up by Al-Qaeda, and they were like, we don’t need any more cannon fire, we don’t need you to fight with the Taliban, you guys have US passports. And so, one of Osama Bin Laden’s top deputies trained these three guys who had American passports, put them back on planes, and set them lose in New York City.

So, what our book does is cover 48 hours in New York City in this desperate race to try to prevent a bombing of the US – of the New York City subway system. And through that story, which is this insane ticktock race, we talk about what works and what doesn’t in counter terrorism. And what we found was that in every step that these programs that the NYPD built, specifically to catch a guy like Zazi, they missed him. They were in his mosque. They had turned his imam into a cooperator. They had infiltrated the Muslim Student Association of one of Zazi’s coconspirators. They were in the neighborhood. They’ve been to all the restaurants in this neighborhood. They’ve been to the YMCA down the street from his apartment. They were at the travel agency that actually sold them the tickets to go to Pakistan. So, what we did here is we try to take a holistic look at successful and not successful counter terrorism efforts post 9/11, through the lens of the biggest counterterrorism chase since the 2001 attack.

TIM: Right, and that also brings the other question, as well I’m just reading your very well written account of Zazi, but – in your book – I’m curious as well, so how many plots have been foiled because of this new NYPD surveillance initiative? And how many do you think they possible are missing, because they’re so hyper macro focused on the Americans in community?

Apuzzo: Well, so reality keeps moving the goalpost on us. So, at the beginning they said, well, we’ve thwarted 14 attacks. Well, we know objectively that that is not true – ProPublica did this wonderful analysis on that – we know that’s not true. And now, they say, well, we’ve been plotted against at least, I think, now the number is 16 times. And whether by – because the FBI or the NYPD or good luck or something else, we’ve not been attacked. And that’s probably true. I mean there are people like Faisal Shahzad, the man who drove his SUV into Time Square, set up a car bomb and walked away, and only because he was a really bad bomb maker people weren’t killed.

TIM: Okay.

Apuzzo: If you can, as a law enforcement agency, if you consider that a success, great. I mean I consider that a failure of bomb making, not a successful police operation. But so, was that a thwarted attack, it’s on their list, so yeah, it’s a thwarted attack. There are instances like there was a 2004 plot to bomb the subway station in the Herald Square timed with the Republican National Convention. Here are these two guys clearly anti-American sentiment, one of the brightest guys in the world, but you know what, terrorists don’t have to be the brightest guys in the world. They – An NYPD informant got close to them and began talking with them – they came across this plot to blow up the subways, they were really concerned about that case even in the justice department about whether to bring that case, whether the informant had gone too far and done an entrapment. But in the end, the prosecutor filed a case, a judge said it wasn’t an entrapment, jury agreed and then those guys went to jail. So, the NYPD has its successes. Now, did it thwart an Al-Qaeda plot there? No, but when it goes off, I mean do you care whether it was a real Al-Qaeda plot or not a real Al-Qaeda plot? I mean, in the end, we all want to be safe. So, we’re not out to demonize the NYPD, we’re trying to show where this program works and where they don’t work. When it mattered most, it didn’t work.

TIM: No, and I agree with you, and I think our biggest concern is the fact that this surveillance is happening and is likely going to continue to happen, or at least I’m wondering if you think that will be. But it sort of – it goes into this bigger picture, for example, you and Adam Goldman came out with the recent story that the NYPD labels mosques as terrorist organizations. And the reason why they do that, I presume, is because it allows for them to investigate anyone who walks into the mosque, without any court order. But coming out of the American Muslim community, some of the concerns that are taking place is, why don’t they do that with, say, right wing organizations, for example, who say they don’t want to live in a federal government, like Michigan Militia types. And so the reason is, perhaps it’s because the backlash would be too great or is there no political context for it to do that. There is one for surveilling Muslims.

Apuzzo: Yeah, I guess I would say, the whole labeling of mosques as terrorist organizations, we were able to identify about a dozen – at least a dozen mosques that were the subject of what the NYPD calls TEIs, terrorism enterprise investigations. Now, if I’m investigating you, let’s say I have information that you’re up to no good, I can investigate you. But if I follow you into a mosque, which I can do if I’m investigating you, I can kind of only pay attention and only put in files conversations I hear you having or that I have with you or that you have with somebody else. But if I label the mosque as subject or the target of the terrorism enterprise investigation, then the building becomes part of it. So now, I’m not just following you, I’m also investigating the mosque. Now, I could follow you into the mosque or whatever the imam says can go into the file, whatever the person next to you can go into the file. They can sit outside and then they can run license plate checks on everybody who shows up and keep those in files because the mosques is the subject to the investigation. And to the NYPD’s credit, they kind of told the judge they were going to do that, back in 2002. Whether he understood – much like what we’re hearing with the NSA – whether he understood the ramifications of that, we’re not sure, and that’s the subject for litigation and sort of beyond where we go.

But as to the question of why, why is it allowed here as opposed to say, they would never designate Goldman Sachs as a criminal organization because there were people in there who were committing crimes, or why don’t they investigate evangelical churches to rude out abortion bombers. I think part of it is because the NYPD doesn’t see itself, and New York doesn’t see itself, and America doesn’t see itself as under attack by radical anti-abortion clinic bombers. They see themselves as under attack and rightly so by fanatical anti-American Islamic terrorists. And so, that’s where they’re putting the resources, that’s where they’re focusing. So, this is not a case of these guys are Gestapo storm troopers. There is a logic to what they’re doing and what we’re saying is, okay, well, let’s just talk about it. Let’s actually examine what’s happening. And you’re absolutely right. It wouldn’t be accepted, they’re not going to investigate, they’re not going to put people undercover inside Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to try to rude out pedophile priests, just in case. They’re not going to do that. But you know what, the Italian and the Irish communities of New York City are much more entrenched and have much more political maturity, and I mean that maturity as years in the game, than the Muslim community in New York City does, and part of that too is we’re talking about a religious identity as opposed to a national identity. So, I don’t need to tell you or your viewers, there’s not a Muslim community in New York City, there’s Pakistanis, there’s Bangladeshis, there’s Egyptians, there’s Syrian, there’s Lebanese. I mean there’s not one overarching community so to speak that has leveraged its numbers, whether you would believe, at 700,000 or 1.1 million, that has leveraged those numbers into political power the way other immigrant groups have because of who have been here longer. So, I think you’ll see that change and we’re already starting to see it a little bit because we’ve seen a much more effort to get up to vote and register voters in Arab and South Asian communities. So, it’s part of the process. It’s political as much as anything else.

TIM: Right, I mean – I’m not sure certain American Muslims, particularly those citizens of New York may agree with that because a lot of American Muslims, particularly second or third generation – and I’m a product of that – may not necessarily identify within an ethnic origin or a foreign country abroad. I’m just an American Muslim who’s going to the mosque down the street because that’s part of my religious community.

Apuzzo: Will you and do you vote on Muslim issues or do you vote on issues that are important to you for everyday life…

TIM: I see what you are asking. But even in our magazine work, The Islamic Monthly, we try to really define or create this sort of understanding that there are different perspectives that come out of the American Muslim community–it’s extremely complex. It isn’t as if every political perspective is shared precisely in all Muslim ethnic or religious circles. But I’m going to vote on what appeals to me and my family for example.

Apuzzo: Yeah.

TIM: I understand your point. I think that there is a bigger context by which this is happening, but let me ask you another question based on your reporting as well. A lot of American Muslims were also very shocked that the NYPD was appealing to other Muslims who would go and attend these religious organizations, and you and Adam had this great story that came out about Shamiur Rahman, who basically admitted that he was an NYPD informant. So, what I wanted to ask you was, from your research, how many Muslims informants do you think there may be or have you come across, and how exactly does the NYPD bring them into or locate them and offer them something like this to do?

Apuzzo: The NYPD has a list that’s called the “Ancestries of Interest” list. So, there’s 28 ancestries of interest, so including American black Muslims, which is not an ancestry. So, what happens is if you are – let’s say you’re – or we’ll use Shamiur’s case. Shamiur is a kid with – I think he had three marijuana arrests, misdemeanors, and he get pinched for the third time and he was sitting in central booking and he gets a visit. And it just seems like, it’s just there’s somebody stopping by or saying hi, well, what happens is they look at these guys, they keep records on the arrest and the nationalities of people arrested. So, if you pop up and you are from an ancestry of interest, you’re going to get a visit. Or if you appear to be from ancestry of interest, you might get a visit. So, Shamiur gets a visit and the cop says, hey, how would you like to turn your life around, we can make this stuff go away and you can help us keep the city safe. You know what, people want to keep the city safe. Who doesn’t want to keep the city safe?

TIM: Right.

Apuzzo: And we talk in the book a lot about the cops who started on these programs and thought this were keeping the city safe and they were doing hero’s work, and only over time realize to do some of this feels like awful waste of time, it feels too intrusive. So, Shamiur set to work as an informant and was paid – can’t remember exactly how much he was paid, being a thousand of dollars. And he would text with his NYPD handler, basically, all day long and he’d say, hey I’m at the mosque. Here’s the people who were here. And he’d take a picture, he’d go on the food drives for needy neighbors and he’d take a picture on his cell phone of the bags of basmati rice or Jasmine rice. Buy boxes of cheerios, and canned goods, and say, hey, here’s what they’re giving out to the neighborhood, and here are the number, here is who’s praying. And his NYPD handler, is just always, just get pictures, get pictures. Hey, we’re going to go to a rally. Okay, get pictures, get pictures. And over time, he realized like, I just don’t feel comfortable doing this and he bailed out and he agreed to talk to us. But they would encourage him to use tactics like he – Shamiur told us it was play and pretend. Like, hey, just play along, like you’re into doing something bad, or create and capture. Create a conversation, create an opportunity to talk about jihad and then capture the rhetoric and give it to the NYPD.

TIM: How did you come across him?

Apuzzo: It was through reporting for our stories. He actually posted on Facebook. Hey guys, I’m sorry, I was working with the NYPD, I’m not working with them anymore, I shouldn’t have done it and why, and then logged off. And it was brought to our attention and we tracked him down and he agreed to chat with us, and give us all of his text messages with the NYPD.

TIM: And so, is the purpose behind this – I’m assuming this is an extension of the demographics unit?

Apuzzo: Never.

TIM: It’s not, separate, okay.

Apuzzo: So, the intelligence unit is the overarching thing. Then, in the intelligence division, there’s the demographics unit and then they’re doing the breaking for hot spots, these are the plain-clothes guys in the neighborhoods. And then, there is the terrorism interdiction unit, and those are the guys who develop informants. And then there’s the special services unit and those are the deep undercover who live in neighborhoods, assume a fake identity, and are just deep undercover, and other cops don’t even know who they are or what they do. They have a cyber unit, they have analytical units. So, I mean it’s – the demographics unit is actually only one part of what’s a much larger intelligence apparatus. And you do estimate that there are still what dozens, hundreds, thousands of these in New York right now, paid by the NYPD.

Apuzzo: Informants you mean?

TIM: Uh-hmm.

Apuzzo: Yeah.

TIM: Or rakers.

Apuzzo: Yeah, the demographics unit, these rakers of the cops, they still exist. Ray Kelley says they still exist and there is – when we last tracked it, it was eight to 12 people. Yeah, I mean I have a long roster of informants. We haven’t able to pay him down but hundreds if not thousands, I don’t know. But a lot of informants, some paid, some not paid. But look, in having an informant in general, I mean that’s bread and butter police game, and everybody uses informants. The question is though is what nobody has done is the terrorism enterprise investigations on the mosques, and that’s how they use informants to go into mosques with recording devices and they record the sermons and what not. So, the existence of informants in of itself is not a big deal. It’s just – for us the significance is the new ways that they’re using the authorities they have.

TIM: Right, let’s get into some of the legal questions here. So, there are a range of issues here that can be pursued in many different ways. First off, was there something illegal going on here? I mean does the CIA involvement bring into question whether certain individuals or organizations are acting outside of their limit. We understand, again, from your book as well, that where the jurisdiction for the FBI ended the NYPD picked up and that’s because the FBI cannot actually collect and store information, but the NYPD did. So, what do you understand, I mean given that this is new and there hasn’t really been a legal precedent to this, where are the legal issues right now?

Apuzzo: Yeah, I mean, look, the NYPD, everything it’s doing might completely be legal. To us the question has never been whether it was legal. I mean the parallel act to the NSA, the NSA has created these surveillance programs, everybody knew we passed patriotic acts, everybody knew we expanded authorities to wire tap through the NSA. It’s not clear that anybody knew exactly how the authorities were going to be interpreted. So, everybody knew the NYPD scrapped the old rules, got new rules, and revamped the intelligence division. What we’ve been writing about, what our book focuses heavily on is, well, what did they do with those authorities. So, if the FBI were caught keeping in its file a discussion between two Pakistani men in Urdu about what they thought of the State of the Union address, that would be a big problem, because there’s a federal privacy act. It’s not completely clear to be a problem in the NYPD. It might be that they’re lawyers, as you’ve mentioned, going to court to challenge this in rule C. But for us, this whole issue has always been about, surveillance is part of a social contracts. We tell the government, we give them the authority to arrest us, wire-tap us, search our homes, whatever. And then, part of the social contract is they’re going to keep us safe. But you can’t really have an effective social contract if you don’t know what you’re giving up and you don’t know what you’re getting in return. So, a lot of what we write about, is just let’s take a look at what we’ve actually given up and what we’re actually getting in return. And you know what, I really hope that the people, especially in the Muslim community, read this book because only by having an informed understanding of what’s going on, can we have the kind of conversation that democracy requires.

TIM: Right, and I mean that’s a fair point, and I think a lot of American Muslims, it’s an understanding that we have as well. There are threats that are coming from within our Muslim community, then obviously we want to keep this country safe as much as everybody else does.

Apuzzo: Right.

TIM: But the real question is, where do you draw that line because it seems like it’s very blurred right now, particularly when you have someone like me, or a plaintiff, or someone who’s just going to the mosque to pray, but everything about them is being recently profiled, and that’s where the concern really comes in. But as a reporter, I’m interested in asking you, what else do you think could be happening that we don’t know yet or that we possibly could be taking place about the spying and where do you think – what precedent might this have set for the rest of the country.

Apuzzo: As a reporter, I deal in the what is, not the what might be, but I do think, the NYPD sees itself and holds itself up as a model for counterterrorism nationwide. So, I do think a discussion about what goes on in the NYPD is important for discussions about what we’re going to see from police departments years from now. And I’ve said this before, but if this thing will be possible, we’re going to look back in years and we’re going to say, man, how did any police department ever keep us safe without a demographics unit. Can you believe that we didn’t have a demographics unit, how stupid were we. That’s distinctly possible. It’s also possible that we’ll look back and be like, can you believe we actually had a demographics unit, like that’s where we were in this country. But you know what, we can never get to that point unless we know, and now we know what’s going on and we can have a discussion about it. That’s what journalism is all about and frankly, that’s what democracy is all about. And so, in addition to obviously wanting to have a popular book, I guess, I feel like this is a really important book that it’s hopefully starting a really important conversation at a time when like America is finally ready to have a conversation about surveillance and where the line between rights and liberty are.

TIM: Right, and so let me ask this as a final question. You also make the connection in 1974 a New York Times come out with an article about the CIA violating its charter when spying on Americans and that then lead to congressional committee investigations, and the CIA, as you had said before, such an oversight is nonexistent. So, what have you seen and will you seem likely coming out of your investigative reporting?

Apuzzo: Well, Brad Lander, the city councilman in New York, really responded to this – to our reporting and was a big advocate for the NYPD inspector general, which the city council passed, not just because of this but certainly because it concerns over Stop and Frisk. And so there’d be an inspector general. You definitely started to see candidates in the mayoral election being more willing, I think, to look critically or speak critically about the NYPD. The truth is NYPD is a great police force, a critical police force, and the dozens of people we talked to for this book were good men and women who want to keep the city safe, and were trying to do their best. And we hope that we reflected that in the book. And that New York City needs the NYPD and why would we want them to do anything other than what’s best for the city. So, if it didn’t work in this case, it’s good that we’re having conversation about why didn’t it work, and how could we do it better next time.

TIM: Agreed, that’s a great place to end. Matt, thank you so much for your time and thank you for your exceptional reporting and for bringing these issues to light. And we hope we can keep the discussion up and thank you for the book. We’ll keep in touch.

Apuzzo: Great, thanks again.

TIM: Thanks a lot. Thank you. Bye-bye.



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