NY Police Spying Programs Produced Mixed Results

According to a review of public documents, materials obtained by the AP and interviews with dozens of city and federal officials, the most controversial New York Police Department spying programs produced mixed results.
by | December 23, 2011
 

NEW YORK — When New York undercover officers and informants were infiltrating a mosque in 2006, they failed to notice the increasingly radical sentiments of a young man who prayed there. Police also kept tabs on a Muslim student group at a local collage, but missed a member's growing anti-Americanism.

Those two men, Najibullah Zazi at the mosque and Adis Medunjanin at the school, would go on to be accused of plotting a subway bombing that officials have called the most serious terrorist threat to the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.

Ever since The Associated Press began revealing New York Police Department spying programs on mosques, student groups, Muslim businesses and communities, those activities have been stoutly defended by police and supporters as having foiled a list of planned attacks.

"Under Commissioner Ray Kelly's leadership, at least 14 attacks by Islamic terrorists have been prevented by the NYPD," Republican Rep. Peter King has said.

But a closer review of the cases reveals a more complicated story. The list cited by King includes plans that may never have existed, as well as plots the NYPD had little or no hand in disrupting. According to a review of public documents, materials obtained by the AP and interviews with dozens of city and federal officials, the most controversial NYPD spying programs produced mixed results. The officials interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly.

There indeed have been successes, such as the 2004 plot uncovered by the NYPD to bomb the Herald Square subway station in Manhattan.

And there have been failures, like Zazi and Medunjanin, who were exactly the kind of people police intended to spot when they developed the spying programs.

Other efforts that compiled data on innocent people but produced no meaningful results.

Some of the NYPD intelligence programs were born out of fear and desperation. One idea was to use informants to trawl local mosques and monitor imams to watch for signs of radicalization. Though the NYPD denies the term exists, several former officials said the informants were known as "mosque crawlers." They would listen in mosques and report back to their handlers.

At times, police officials themselves have raised concerns about intelligence-gathering programs. In about 2008, for instance, police began monitoring everyone in the city who legally changed names. Anyone who might be a Muslim convert or appeared to be Americanizing his or her name was investigated and personal information was put into police databases.

Current and former officials say it produced no results.

A secretive squad known as the Demographics Unit also infiltrated local businesses and community organizations looking for trouble or "hot spots." Their daily reports helped create searchable databases of life in New York's Muslim neighborhoods.

The work of that secret unit, one NYPD official said, helped the NYPD arrest a Pakistani immigrant named Shahawar Matin Siraj and foiled an attack.

For years, police have said publicly that the Herald Square case began with a tip but have not elaborated. Siraj's lawyer, Martin Stolar, said prosecutors provided no documents related to the Demographics Unit at trial.

Siraj was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in federal prison in 2007. But defense attorneys, and even some inside the NYPD intelligence unit, said police had coaxed the men into making incriminating statements and there was no proof Siraj ever obtained explosives.

The case is arguably the NYPD's greatest counterterrorism success. But there are others.

The NYPD played an important role in the case against Carlos Amonte and Mohammed Alessa, two New Jersey men who pleaded guilty to charges they tried to leave the country in 2010 to join the al-Qaida-linked terrorist group al-Shabaab. The FBI long had been aware of the two men but had been unable to win their trust with an informant or undercover agent, federal officials said. The NYPD, with its deep roster of Muslim officers, provided the undercover officer who ultimately succeeded in winning their confidence.

When the NYPD's effectiveness is questioned, the department's most ardent supporters frequently point to a long list of terrorist plots said to have targeted New York since 9/11. The list often is described as plots thwarted by the NYPD.

In reality, however, the NYPD played little or no role in preventing many of those attacks.

Some, like a cyanide plot against the subway system, were discovered among evidence obtained overseas but were never set into motion. Others, like the 2006 plot to blow up U.S.-bound airliners using liquid explosives, were thwarted by U.S. and international authorities, and plans never got off the ground.

And some, like the 2008 subway plot, went unnoticed by the NYPD despite the money and manpower devoted to monitoring Muslim communities, according to the NYPD files obtained by the AP. The files along with interviews show the NYPD was monitoring Zazi's mosque, and also the Muslim student organization Medunjanin attended. Zazi and Medunjanin were friends and had been praying together regularly since 9th grade. As the years passed, Zazi grew increasingly upset about civilians killed by the U.S. military in Afghanistan; Medunjanin was outraged by the way Muslims were treated at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, and he promoted jihad at the mosque and after basketball games with friends, according to court documents.

The plot was discovered after U.S. intelligence intercepted an email revealing that Zazi was trying to make a bomb.

The NYPD programs have widened the chasm between the police and the city's Muslims, a community the Obama administration says is a crucial partner in the effort to prevent another terrorist attack. Fed up with a decade of being under scrutiny, some Muslim groups now urge against going directly to police when someone hears radical, anti-American talk.

They reason that the person is probably a police informant.

At the federal level, intelligence programs are reviewed by Congress, inspectors general and other watchdogs. The NYPD faces no such scrutiny from the City Council or city auditors. Federal officials, too, have been reluctant to question the effectiveness of the NYPD, despite spending more than $1.6 billion in federal money on the department since 9/11.

The Justice Department under Eric Holder repeatedly has sidestepped questions about what it thinks about the NYPD programs revealed by the AP.

The NYPD's terrorist cases also include ones the federal government has declined to prosecute. Last year, a grand jury declined to indict Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mamdouh on the most serious charge initially brought against them, a high-level terror conspiracy count that carried the potential for life in prison without parole. They were indicted on lesser state terrorism and hate crime charges, including one punishable by up to 32 years behind bars.

Last month, NYPD detectives arrested Jose Pimentel on terrorism-related charges. A state grand jury has yet to indict him on those charges. Federal and city law enforcement officials who reviewed the case told the AP there were concerns that Pimentel lacked the mental capacity to act on his own. The NYPD informant's drug use in the case also created serious issues, the officials said.

During the 2005 deposition over the subway searches, lawyers pressed NYPD intelligence chief David Cohen, a former top CIA official, to explain how the NYPD could be so sure its programs really worked.

"They haven't attacked us," he said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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