Former FBI Agent: NYPD's Muslim-Spying Demographics Unit Was Almost Completely Useless
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Certain demographics are desirable. 18-34? Taste-makers and early adopters. 35-49? Money. Muslim and New York City resident? Being a member of this group meant (until recently) having First Amendment-protected activities being closely scrutinized by the NYPD’s now-defunct “Demographics Unit.”
This special unit was recently disbanded, roughly a decade after it should have been, thanks to a new mayor and a new police commissioner. The unit was put together by a former CIA officer who used the post-9/11 attack climate to push for expansive surveillance of the city’s Muslim population, including designating entire mosques as terrorist-related entities. Despite all the extra attention being paid to Muslims, not a single useful investigation resulted from this unit’s work.
The surveillance being done by this unit so pervasively subverted civil liberties protections that not even the CIA could access the NYPD’s files without breaking its internal rules. The same goes for the FBI, which has long partnered with the NYPD in its counter-terrorism efforts. Don Borelli, a former FBI agent, has written a piece for the New York Daily News, detailing why police commissioner Bill Bratton was right to disband the Demographics Unit.
Together, we were able to stop many threats — and save many lives — including a serious plot against the subways from Najibullah Zazi, an ethnic Afghan who grew up in Queens and went on to become an Al Qaeda operative.
Interestingly enough, the NYPD demographics unit had detailed files on Zazi’s neighborhood in Flushing during the period in which he was becoming radicalized. It kept files on businesses and visited coffee shops believed to be hangouts for potential terrorists. The unit even visited the travel agency where Zazi bought his ticket to travel to Afghanistan for terrorism training.
So why wasn’t Zazi identified until he was driving to New York from Denver to blow up the subway? Because the program was ineffective. The mission of the demographics unit was to spot the terrorists in the haystack, but again and again it failed to do so.
All haystack, no needle, like so many other surveillance programs. The unit overwhelmed itself in useless data, keeping it from finding what it needed when it mattered most. These data swamps built by investigative agencies have proven to be more dangerous than old-fashioned police work.
During my time with the Joint Terrorism Task Force, I read many reports derived from investigations conducted by the NYPD Intelligence Division, which may well have relied on the demographics unit’s work. I was presented with many interesting facts about where people were attending Friday prayers and who belonged to various Muslim student associations.
But rarely did I learn anything I didn’t already know through traditional investigations, much less anything that would have led me to open a terrorism investigation.
Adding to the mess here is the NYPD’s twisted relationship with the FBI. While it clearly enjoys access to G-men and their tools, former police chief Ray Kelly often made it clear that his officers did superior work and that the FBI’s production of information was too slow to be useful. Of course, FBI agents have said the same thing about the NYPD, particularly in the information department, where the sharing was usually a one-way street that flowed out of the FBI and into the NYPD’s hands.
Beyond the antagonistic relationship is the Demographic Unit itself — its own worst enemy. The former CIA officer who had a local judge rewrite guidelines to give the NYPD unprecedented permission for pervasive surveillance also managed to ensure that most info flowing back upstream to the FBI ended up being routed directly into the trash can.
Moreover, I wound up shredding some of these reports because they had no investigative value and, in my opinion, did not belong in any FBI file because they solely reported on what was First Amendment-protected activity.
Much like other failures to stop terrorist activity, the problems here were communication (too little) and information (too much). As Borelli notes, in his experience, it’s been more useful to build trust than to endlessly spy, something the NYPD really hasn’t made much effort to foster over the years. But its failure to do so means it has buried itself in data and alienated those who could bring an inside perspective. A decade’s worth of spying resulted in nothing but violated rights.