The NYPD’s secret spies

September 15, 2011

David Judd reports on revelations about the NYPD's spying against Muslims.

NEW DETAILS continue to emerge about the New York Police Department's (NYPD) secret program for spying on Muslims, with the cooperation of the CIA. The CIA has now been forced to launch an investigation into the legality of its own actions, given that the agency is prohibited from spying on Americans.

The NYPD's Islamophobic and racist surveillance tactics have become one of the most glaring examples of how the "war on terror" serves not only as a justification for imperialist war and occupation, but also for domestic political repression.

The NYPD Intelligence Division has long been known to infiltrate mosques and engage in surveillance without a warrant or any evidence of a crime, inside and outside New York City. For example, it was involved in surveillance of antiwar activists in the lead-up to the 2004 Republican National Convention.

However, an Associated Press (AP) investigation has turned up documents which give new details on the Demographics Unit, which was led by a man "on leave" from the CIA, Lawrence Sanchez--a unit whose explicit purpose was to track Muslims in the course of their everyday lives.

Heavily armed New York police officers on the streets
Heavily armed New York police officers on the streets (Sergey Shpakovsky)

According to the AP, the Demographic Unit "maintained a list of 28 countries that, along with 'American Black Muslim,' the department labeled 'ancestries of interest.'" The unit compiled information on more than 200 mosques, a similar number of ethnic restaurants, bookstores and bars, a dozen Islamic schools, and 31 Muslim Students Associations (MSAs).

Just in the documents that have been leaked, 32 mosques are specifically described as having been infiltrated by informants or undercover cops, along with the MSAs at Brooklyn College and Baruch College.

The department also had a distinct unit, the Terrorist Interdiction Unit, focused on developing informants. Their tactics for getting Muslims to rat out their neighbors included racially discriminatory arrests and straightforward blackmail, writes the AP:

They dispatched more officers to Pakistani neighborhoods and, according to one former police official directly involved in the effort, instructed them to look for reasons to stop cars: speeding, broken tail lights, running stop signs, whatever. The traffic stop gave police an opportunity to search for outstanding warrants or look for suspicious behavior. An arrest could be the leverage the police needed to persuade someone to become an informant.

THE CIA connections go beyond the head of the Demographics Unit. Multiple top NYPD officials have a history with the CIA, including David Cohen, the head of the Intelligence Division. The police department also put at least one detective through a full foreign-espionage training course at the CIA.

The NYPD continues, ludicrously, to deny the existence of a Demographic Unit, and to insist it has not engaged in racial or religious profiling, which is specifically barred by a 2004 New York City law.

The FBI has also infiltrated mosques and subpoenaed dozens of antiwar activists as part of a witch-hunt investigation into "material support" of terrorism, but FBI officials are at least required to come up with a fig leaf of supposed evidence of criminal activity before ordering infiltration.

In 2007, the Los Angeles Police Department proposed a program to track Muslims very similar to the work of the NYPD's Demographics Unit, but the LAPD was forced to abandon the plan after a public outcry.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights organization, has called for a federal Justice Department investigation into the NYPD program, as have some members of Congress. Starting with its failure to close Guantánamo Bay, however, the Obama administration has proven itself to have no more respect for civil liberties than did Bush and Cheney's regime.

It is possible that exposure will force the NYPD to scale back its surveillance and infiltration. But attacks on political and free speech rights come with imperialist war, and we won't be rid of the one until we're rid of the other.

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