Former FBI Agent: NYPD's Muslim-Spying Demographics Unit Was Almost Completely Useless

from the holds-several-'most-rights-violated'-trophies,-however dept

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.

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Filed Under: demographics unit, fbi, muslims, new york city, nyc, nypd

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  • identicon
    PRMan, 28 Apr 2014 @ 4:46pm


    Bitcoin thefts, which have a lot of data which would allow simple research to track down the perpetrators have gone completely untouched to this point, even though some have involved millions of dollars.

    My guess is that not even a single FBI agent has looked at them yet, even though finding the culprits should be trivial.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Apr 2014 @ 5:09pm

    I believe the mud flinging is mostly about the FBI and NYPD fighting over a piece of the federal funding pie, which funds them both as "terrorist fighting" organizations.

    That's probably why the FBI is complaining about the NYPD's Muslim-Spying Demographics Unit.

    The FBI views the NYPD as competition for federal funding dollars in counter-terrorism. If they can shut the NYPD's counter-terrorist operation down, that means more money for the FBI's budget.

    The FBI's aggressive behavior towards a fellow law enforcement agency, all makes sense when you view it as a money issue.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Apr 2014 @ 6:57pm

    Mr Cushing, have you read the depositions of NYPD brass in this case? I recommend you do. All of them.

    "Morons" does not do justice. It never had anything to do with "T" word.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    sorrykb (profile), 28 Apr 2014 @ 7:04pm

    One correction

    The headline should read
    Former FBI Agent: NYPD's Muslim-Spying Demographics Unit Was Completely Useless
    No need for the "almost".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    johnvanvliet (profile), 28 Apr 2014 @ 7:19pm


    With all this Over blown "terrorism this" and "terror that"
    and "everyone is a terrorist"

    I keep expecting someone in a Thomas Jefferson mask
    taking over the telly and talking about July 4'th
    as a "day to remember"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Apr 2014 @ 7:57pm

    Tim Cushing: the man that feels law enforcement is useless.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 28 Apr 2014 @ 9:37pm

    What's that mission again?

    Looked to me (and apparently to Muslims) like the unit was mostly intended to "shock and awe" Muslim minority groups. Same goal as Stop-and-Frisk; different approach.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 29 Apr 2014 @ 3:14am

      Re: What's that mission again?

      That. As if Muslims were the only types among terrorists. Much like black people and latinos are probably the only sources of criminals.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 30 Apr 2014 @ 12:06am

    They managed to cause more terror than they stopped.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    geral, 2 May 2014 @ 9:25am

    fbi activities

    Former agent: tell the whole truth little fella.
    A nation and its people who perpetually engage in the *inhumane subjugation, imprisonment, **torture (physical & psychological), forced suicide and mass murder/assassinations of others must by the laws of physics and divine nature have the same calamities delivered upon themselves.*** Secret operatives, stalkers, & criminal perpetrators, including police and fbi agents, in support of such evil government impliedly perform their atrocities on behalf of the general population as a matter of public policy, and the true, underlying and inescapable character of the rotting nation is permanently defined by its crimes against humanity and other high crimes and misdemeanors globally.

    fbi uses a form of Pavlov's "Classical Conditioning"

    mind control:

    global reaction:

    * html


    *** tal.html

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    shawn allen, 22 Sep 2014 @ 5:56pm

    The f.b.I is a bunch of lawyer's and very good scientists. They need to be disbanded as law enforcement. They are very good at figuring out crimes but absolutely useless as law enforcement. They have way too many senior agents trying too make a name for themselves. Killing innocent people and letting the real criminals get off because all they care about is public perception. The best thing for American would be to get rid of everything but Thierry labs and scientist. They rest of the organization has a absolutely obvious failer rate and it's not going to get better.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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