NYPD Program Designated Entire Mosques As 'Terrorist Organizations' And Failed To Deliver Useful Data When It Mattered Most

from the an-ongoing,-audacious-failure dept

The NYPD’s defenders claim that minorities will be the real victims if the stop and frisk program is neutered by court decisions and legislation. It’s an odd claim considering minorities made up 88% of the unconstitutional stops, but that’s the line of thinking up top.

I wonder how they’ll spin this latest revelation. The NYPD carved itself exceptions to policies meant to limit First Amendment violations by declaring entire New York mosques as “terror groups.”

The New York Police Department has secretly labeled entire mosques as terrorist organizations, a designation that allows police to use informants to record sermons and spy on imams, often without specific evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Designating an entire mosque as a terrorism enterprise means that anyone who attends prayer services there is a potential subject of an investigation and fair game for surveillance.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD has opened at least a dozen “terrorism enterprise investigations” into mosques, according to interviews and confidential police documents. The TEI, as it is known, is a police tool intended to help investigate terrorist cells and the like.

Many TEIs stretch for years, allowing surveillance to continue even though the NYPD has never criminally charged a mosque or Islamic organization with operating as a terrorism enterprises.

How did the NYPD do this? By exploiting post-9/11 paranoia and leveraging the word “protection” in order to infringe on civil liberties. NY Magazine details how this went down in a very long and thorough writeup on the history of the NYPD’s civil liberty-stomping Demographics Group. The first step in turning mosques into Constitution-free zones required a rewrite of rules referred to as the “Handschu guidelines.”

“The guidelines stated that police could investigate constitutionally protected activities only when they had specific information that a crime was being committed or was imminent. Undercover officers could be used only when they were essential to a case, not as a way to keep tabs on groups that might be up to no good. Police were prohibited from building dossiers on people or keeping their names in files without specific evidence of crimes.”

Over the years, constitutional protection has often been viewed as an impediment to investigative work. Just as the government pushed for warrantless wiretaps, location tracking and cell phone content searches, the NYPD pushed for uncontrolled access to anything it considered a hotspot for terrorists — in this case, the city’s many mosques. The bizarrely-named “Demographics Group” used the recent terrorist attacks in New York City as the justification for violating First Amendment protections.

[T]he activities that [CIA liaison Larry] Sanchez and [former senior CIA officer David] Cohen were proposing would not have been permitted under the Handschu guidelines. So, on September 12, 2002, Cohen filed a 23-page document in federal court asking a judge to throw out the guidelines and give his officers more leeway.

Cohen insisted that the world had changed since Al Qaeda attacked America, and the NYPD needed to change with it. “These changes were not envisioned when the Handschu guidelines were agreed upon,” he wrote, “and their continuation dangerously limits the ability of the NYPD to protect the people it is sworn to serve.”

Cohen painted a frightening picture of a nation—and a city—under siege from enemies within. “They escape detection by blending into American society. They may own homes, live in communities with families, belong to religious or social organizations, and attend educational institutions,” he wrote. “They typically display enormous patience, often waiting years until the components of their plans are perfectly aligned.”

He argued that America’s freedoms of movement, privacy, and association gave terrorists an advantage, one that left U.S. citizens painfully exposed. “The freedom of our society,” Cohen wrote, “has also made it possible for terrorist organizations to maintain U.S.-based activities.”

This 23-page document was, to put it lightly, bullshit. But it was a “masterpiece” of button-pushing, an exceedingly well-crafted bit of rhetoric that served as a justification blueprint for nearly every constitutionally-problematic NYPD program that followed. Cohen’s combination of jargon and fearmongering won over Judge Charles Haight, who decided the “Handschu guidelines” were no longer applicable to today’s terrorist-heavy world.

The new guidelines still contained one significant restriction: the department was forbidden from collecting or storing information related to First Amendment-protected activities (like worship and speech) unless it was “directly related” to criminal activity. This limitation obviously wasn’t going to work for Sanchez and Cohen, so they did what the NSA has done — expanded the definition of “related.” Here’s a quote by Sanchez that illustrates the type of spin deployed to loosen the restrictions.

“Part of our mission is to protect New York City citizens from becoming terrorists.”

This is taken from a statement delivered to Congress. Unbelievably, no one questioned whether the NYPD should really be in the “business” of “protecting” New Yorkers from terrorist recruiting efforts. No one questioned the fact that widening the scope of its “mission” allowed the NYPD’s mini-CIA to claim nearly everything and everyone in New York City was “related” to its investigations, thanks to nearly everyone being somehow susceptible to terrorist recruitment efforts. In fact, as NY Magazine points out, Congress “enthusiastically embraced” Cohen and Sanchez’s views.

With anything and everything now “related” to the Demographic Group’s investigations, the data poured in. And most of what was collected was completely useless. Well, “useless” if you believe the group was primarily there to catch terrorists. If you believe it was there to scoop up as much information as it could about mosque attendees and their non-mosque-related activities, then the program was firing on all cylinders.

About once a week, they filed reports on conversations they’d eavesdropped on. Nobody trained the rakers on what exactly qualified as suspicious, so they reported anything they heard. One Muslim man made it into files even though he praised President Bush’s State of the Union address and said people who criticized the U.S. government didn’t realize how good they had it. Two men of Pakistani ancestry were included for saying the nation’s policies had become increasingly anti-Muslim since 9/11. Muslims who criticized the CIA’s use of drones to launch missiles in Pakistan were documented.

The surveillance program grew, as unchecked programs tend to, expanding beyond even the loosely-defined targets.

Cohen and Sanchez’s efforts also reached beyond the Muslim community. Undercover officers traveled the country, keeping tabs on liberal protest groups like Time’s Up and the Friends of Brad Will. Police infiltrated demonstrations and collected information about antiwar groups and those that marched against police brutality.

So, now the Demographic Group was surveilling everyone the NYPD viewed with suspicion, including those who simply don’t care to be brutalized by police officers. This program extended so far past its original point that even the FBI became concerned after Sanchez tried to sell it some of the Demographics Group’s collected data, declaring the program was “targeting individuals and businesses without cause.” Taking the files would have violated the FBI’s rules.

Not only was the FBI concerned, but the CIA found the unit’s work troublesome, especially as no one could point to any proven results of its activities.

Sitting with the NYPD, [senior CIA officer Margaret Henoch] felt a similar unease. She didn’t see how the Demographics reports could be used to draw conclusions. “I think this is a really impressive collection of what’s where, but I don’t understand how it helps you,” Henoch told the NYPD brass… She asked if there was some success story that summed up the program’s usefulness in its first two years. When she didn’t get an answer, she assumed that the NYPD was being coy with a potential rival. Even in the post-9/11 era, intelligence agencies often jealously guarded their secrets.

We’ve covered that exact lack of results here at Techdirt. Thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars spent, and the only success stories seem to involve questionable sting operations that set up unassuming chumps to take a fall on terrorism charges. The only outcome to date has been an impressive slate of civil liberties violations.

Even worse, despite years of wide collections, no one who ended up in a file was ever crossed off the list of potential terrorists. If the Demographic Group gathered anything on you, you were a suspect for life. The analogy Cohen used to sell the judge on the program — “raking” through “coal” to look for “hotspots” — turned out be a shovel that produced nothing more than bigger and bigger piles of coal.

Then came the most damning moment of all. The collection efforts failed when they mattered most.

In September 2009, the National Security Agency intercepted an e-mail from a taxi driver named Najibullah Zazi to an e-mail address linked to one of Al Qaeda’s most senior leaders. The message contained the line “the marriage is ready.”

Marriage and wedding were among Al Qaeda’s favorite code words for attacks, referring to the day that a suicide bomber met his brides, the maidens of the hereafter.

Trying to ascertain the scope of the plot, the NYPD searched the files of the Demographics Unit. Even though the rakers had canvassed Zazi’s neighborhood daily, and had even visited the travel agent where he bought his tickets between New York and Colorado, there was not a single piece of useful information.

Here’s where the NYPD’s mini-CIA meets the real CIA and its more secretive, more sinister big brother, the NSA. All of these agencies, handling rakes or pitchforks or whatever in order to comb through haystacks and piles of coal, collaborated to search for that one ember, that one needle — and came up with nothing.

Harvesting massive amounts of data simply because you’ve carved yourself a loophole in the Constitution not only abuses the trust of American citizens, but it does so in exchange for “collections” that are 99.9-100% useless. The defenders continue to claim every bit of this extraneous information is somehow “relevant” or “related,” but when it comes time to put it all to work, the dots fail to connect. See also: the Boston Bombing.

Kelly still believes this program is useful and violates no one’s rights. Of course he feels this way. Citizens are merely data points or potential criminals or, very frequently, both. The only people he trusts are members of his police force. Everyone else is a name on a file, collected and observed simply because someone gave the NYPD the permission to do it.

Filed Under: , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “NYPD Program Designated Entire Mosques As 'Terrorist Organizations' And Failed To Deliver Useful Data When It Mattered Most”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Jay (profile) says:

Who's the terrorist now?

Part of our mission is to protect New York City citizens from becoming terrorists.

What happens when your government can’t protect you from itself?

I believe we get the NSA and the NYPD and their own brand of vigilante justice. This is what happens when a government is scared to death of having to change its policies to ensure that everyone has their rights instead of the select few.

VideoSavant says:

Re: A little experiment

How many Christian churches make world domination a basic tenet of its creed and require its faithful to support all efforts to achieve that goal?

Maybe if you knew a little less about righteousness and a little more about jihad, taqiyya, kitman and other aspects of the Muslim faith you would understand the foolishness of suggesting that an apple should be called an orange.

I’m not saying that this justifies the NYPD action here, but if anything, you’ve managed to be even more fundamentally off target than they are.

Bergman (profile) says:

The thing about warrants...

is that they allow you to do things that normally would be illegal for you to do. Want to kick a door in and search the premises? Illegal without a warrant, legal with one.

But the thing is, if a given act does not need a warrant, then doing it cannot be illegal. Or put another way, I wonder how these NYPD guys would feel if they discovered a private citizen was conducting the same sort of spying on the NYPD? If it’s not illegal…

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

“The only people he trusts are members of his police force.”

As was pointed out, terrorists “typically display enormous patience, often waiting years until the components of their plans are perfectly aligned.” How is this guy so sure that his police force hasn’t been infiltrated by one of those years long plans? I mean, think about it. All of their programs are turning up nothing useful. Are the programs themselves flawed, or is someone on the inside manipulating the data?

I’m hoping that if we make these people paranoid enough, they’ll push everyone away in fear and end up a lone nut job. Lone nuts are easier to deal with.

Anonymous Coward says:

The defenders claim it's perfectly ok, because you know, MUSLIMS!!

I’ve read the comments to stories about this at places like Politico, and the results are very troubling.

It seems a large number of people basically feel that the government doing this is a ok, simply because the victims are Muslims, and many of the commentators are basically racist towards them.

Doesn’t matter all the useless information that was being grabbed, doesn’t matter that a lot of the real nonFBI created terrorist attacks that have been foiled by Muslims reporting potential terrorists to the police and FBI. Doesn’t matter that the spying is almost certainly illegal under the 4th and 1st amendments (freedom of religion, the FBI agents didn’t just spy on Muslims, they had their spies get into their churches leadership to spy on them from the top).

The politico article mentioned that the reports on potential terrorist activity also viewed just about ANY innocent activity as potential terrorism or preparation for terrorism. Such as one Mosque renovating their basement so they could add some gym equipment to it for their members to use for free.

Anonymous Coward says:

Great article! I really enjoyed reading it. I’m pretty sure we can all assume these Unconstitutional spy programs aren’t really about catching ‘terrorists’. That’s just their cover story to justify these programs.

What these Unconstitutional spy programs are really about, is trying to control people and events. In other words, trying to control the world.

That’s what these Unconstitutional spy programs are really about.

For example. If there’s an uprising or protest going on, opposing the Unconstitutional spy program. Simply turn the Unconstitutional program on the protesters and learn who they are and where they meet.

Then if the protesters march down a street, have to police lead the marchers onto a dead end bridge and arrest them all.

Another thing the Unconstitutional spies could do is blacklist citizens as ‘extremists’, so they can can never get a job because their background check will throw up red flags.

Or the Unconstitutional spies could assign an agent to monitor a targets internet, phone and email. Looking for some minor crime to be committed and then ‘parallel construct’ where the evidence came from. In order to throw someone spies don’t like behind bars. Just for kicks and payback.

How about blackmailing individuals in positions of power. Such as Congress and even the President. If they refuse to go along, leak some damaging information to the press just to ‘send a message’ or ruin their career.

Let’s not forget about spying on UN ambassadors. That way if a certain country doesn’t do what their told too, then leverage can be applied to them.

I mean the list just goes on and on. There’s all kinds of things that can be done with an Unconstitutional spying superprogram. Fighting terrorists is at the bottom of the list. It’s just an excuse to justify the Unconstitutional spy programs.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...