TOPICS > Politics

‘Mosque Crawlers,’ ‘Rakers’ Monitoring U.S. Muslims for NYPD

February 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
The White House helped fund a police surveillance effort of Muslims in the New York City area after 9/11, The Associated Press revealed Monday. The operation, part of a monitoring story that emerged last summer, triggered immediate criticism from civil rights groups. Ray Suarez speaks with the AP's Matt Apuzzo.
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GWEN IFILL: Next: More details emerge about a program aimed at preventing terrorism, but which also raises questions about civil liberties.

Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: The story has been emerging since last summer. New York City police began extensively monitoring Muslims in the city after 9/11.

The operation, revealed by the Associated Press, triggered immediate criticism from civil rights groups.

CHRISTOPHER DUNN, attorney, New York Civil Liberties Union: At the end of the day, it is, pure and simple, a rogue domestic surveillance operation. And that’s a matter of serious concern to us.

RAY SUAREZ: But New York City’s police commissioner, Ray Kelly, insisted last year the surveillance is necessary and legal.

RAYMOND KELLY, New York City Police commissioner: We’re doing what we believe we have to do to protect the city. We have many, many lawyers in our employ. We see ourselves as very conscious and aware of civil liberties.

And we know that there’s always going to be scrutiny. There’s always going to be some tension between the police department and the so-called civil liberties groups.

RAY SUAREZ: The program used undercover police officers and recruited Muslim informants to keep watch.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg insisted last December the operation wasn’t about racial profiling.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, mayor of New York: The city’s police department has worked very hard to bring crime down and prevent terrorism. And we have done it in a way that is consistent with making sure that we obey the law and don’t target anybody.

RAY SUAREZ: But Muslim activists in the city say surveillance is corrosive and counterproductive.

LINDA SARSOUR, Arab-American Association of New York: It creates mistrust amongst people within their own community. It also hinders what people do in their daily lives. They don’t go — they don’t want to go to the same coffee shops or even pray at the mosques. And what it does is it creates mistrust also between us and law enforcement, which really undermines public safety for all New Yorkers.

RAY SUAREZ: The operation extended beyond New York City limits. This apartment building in New Brunswick, New Jersey, served as an NYPD command center for surveillance throughout that state.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, his state’s former U.S. attorney*, said the whole operation was news to him.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: I may have been briefed about it in ’07. If I was, I don’t remember it. And NYPD’s jurisdiction — they don’t really have jurisdiction here.

RAY SUAREZ: Just yesterday the AP revealed White House funding helped purchase cars and computers used in the surveillance effort.

We take a closer look at the story now with Matt Apuzzo. He’s one of the two reporters who initially reported on the surveillance program back in August for the Associated Press and has continued to follow the story.

Matt, you’ve called the NYPD one of America’s most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies. What was the New York City Police Department doing?

MATT APUZZO, The Associated Press: Well, they have domestic intelligence programs that go far beyond what we would have expected pre-9/11 to see from any police department and in many ways operate in ways that the federal government, the FBI just simply can’t.

They have a program called the Demographics Unit, which the NYPD originally denied even existed, plainclothes officers search that — often Arab officers — who will go out into Muslim neighborhoods, and they are called rakers. They’re going to rake the coals looking for hot spots, meaning they’re going to go out and they’re going to take pictures of mosques. They’re going to take pictures of all the Muslim businesses in the area.

They’re going to go into the Muslim cafes or hookah bars and they’re just going to eavesdrop and listen to people’s conversations, try to gauge the sentiment of the owner, maybe write down his ethnicity, definitely write down his ethnicity. And those goes all into police reports.

So we have seen them for many neighborhoods. We have seen them for Egyptians, Moroccans, Albanians. They are building these profiles of where Muslims live, eat, shop, pray, where they watch sports, where they go to Internet cafes. It’s just — it’s an incredible process by which they’re bringing in information about the Northeast Muslims.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, in this kind of surveillance, in these ongoing investigations, was there first established probable cause, the evidence of an ongoing commission of a crime, some reason to believe that there was a crime going on, or were they just watching?

MATT APUZZO: Right.

In the Demographics — in the Demographics Unit — these are the undercover, the plainclothes officers — their reports mentioned no evidence of crimes. I mean I think we found one evidence, one report that said here’s a store that appears to sell counterfeit DVDs.

So, the Demographics Unit is just out there raking the coals. They’re just building these databases. Then there are these informants, you know, the mosque crawlers who go out into the mosques and are investigating. You know, one, they’re investigating. If there is a lead, they’re following it. But they’re also there just serving as listening posts inside the mosques.

So we’ve seen documents where the informants or the undercover officers inside the mosques are reporting back on even innocuous things that imams are saying at Friday prayers. They’re reporting back, the imam says, hey, we should hold — we should hold a protest about the Danish cartoons. There should be a nonviolent protest. I want everybody to maybe write a letter to a politician.

And this stuff’s ending up in police reports for Ray Kelly. And we have seen evidence of them using surveillance cameras, writing down license plates of people coming to and from mosques. I mean, it’s just — it really is surprising and really shows the transition and the transformation of the NYPD.

RAY SUAREZ: How did this get started?

Over the years, imams have told this program that they have been contacted openly by the FBI, asked for cooperation, which they often gave. Did the New York City Police Department determine that there was no other way to get the kind of information they were looking for?

MATT APUZZO: Yes, I mean, in some of the ways, the Demographics Unit is built on the idea that you’re going to learn more if you go in covertly. You know, you’re going to be able to take a more honest pulse of the community if you go in overtly.

And the idea is, if you create these reports, let’s say, you know, three years from now, there’s a report that, you know, from the CIA that says, hey, there’s an Egyptian and he just came to the United States and maybe he’s going to attack New York, we don’t know, the NYPD can go to their Egyptian folder, pull it off, see all the mosques where the Egyptians are likely to go, where they’re likely to go out to dinner, where they’re likely to pray.

Maybe even they’ve collected phone numbers of people who rent — of Egyptians who rent rooms to rent. And they have got that all at their fingertips. So that’s the reasoning behind it.

RAY SUAREZ: Didn’t your reporting turn up people who thought they were already cooperating with the authorities who it turned out were also under undercover surveillance?

MATT APUZZO: We’ve — we found several instances of imams who have partnered with the NYPD, who stood shoulder to shoulder with Mayor Bloomberg, who have been — who have decried terrorism and who have been held up as allies in the war against terrorism in New York City, and we found documents showing that they had undercover officers or informants assigned directly to them or — and their mosques.

RAY SUAREZ: There are rules that govern domestic spying that apply to the FBI, that apply to the CIA. Do they apply to the New York City Police Department? Was the NYPD living within the rules?

MATT APUZZO: Well, I mean, legally, that’s sort of to be determined.

The police department operates under federal consent decree, basically a court order in a longstanding civil rights lawsuit. Lawyers in that case say these documents that we’ve obtained show they have gone beyond that. The NYPD says, absolutely not. We stay within the four corners of that.

But what’s interesting from where we’re coming from and what’s been fascinating the more people we talk to is, we’ve never really approached this as a legal issue. I mean, when you look at the big issues post-9/11 in the United States, whether it’s water-boarding, warrantless wire-tapping, surveillance, Gitmo, black sites, rendition, all of those have been legal.

I mean, nobody is saying — nobody is going to jail for those programs. These programs might be legal. We have actually never said, this is illegal, they’re violating the law. But, I mean, it certainly is worth having this conversation, just like it’s been worth having those conversations.

And what’s interesting about the NYPD is, they have no — almost no oversight. And the city council is not aware of the programs that are going on. Congress is not aware of what’s going on. The attorney general has said that it basically doesn’t have the ability to investigate.

The White House said yesterday, yes, we — our money is being used here, but we’re just a policy office. We don’t actually have operational control. So, you know, these decisions are largely kept in-house at the NYPD and with Mayor Bloomberg.

RAY SUAREZ: We’ll continue this conversation online.

Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press, thanks for joining us.

MATT APUZZO: Thanks so much for having me.