B John Doyle
The NYPD and CIA sent undercover agents to watch mosques, bookstores and cafés in Muslim neighborhoods to sniff out terror plots - a tactic cops say helped them thwart seven planned attacks.
The Daily News largely confirmed the details of an Associated Press report revealing the existence of what it called the NYPD's Demographic Unit, which uses "mosque crawlers" to gather information.
Critics charge the operation to gather intel on the city's imams, cabbies and street-meat sellers blurs the line between foreign and domestic spying and stretches legal limits on racial profiling.
NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne blasted the AP story, saying it was "marked by outright fiction," and insisting there's no such thing as "mosque crawlers." Browne said cops did nothing wrong in their efforts to combat terrorism - and foiled some major plots in the process. "We're going to do all we reasonably can to keep New York safe," he said. "And we uphold the Constitution in doing so." He said there have been at least 13 major plots against New York since 9/11 and pointed to seven cases in which information from the NYPD's Intelligence Unit helped nab would-be terrorists. "We commit over a thousand officers to the fight every day to stop terrorists who've demonstrated an undiminished appetite to come back and kill more New Yorkers," Browne said. "We don't apologize for it."
City Councilman Peter Vallone, head of the Public Safety Committee, was even more blunt. "Maybe they should infiltrate a few sewing clubs, just to be politically correct?" he asked rhetorically. "Clearly, they are going where they reasonably believe terrorist activity could be." One source said the department has deep undercovers who live as members of different communities to keep a constant watch for danger.
Top cop taps CIA veteran
The counterrorism operation was started by CIA veteran David Cohen, who was tapped in 2002 by Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who thought the 9/11 attacks proved the NYPD could no longer rely on the feds to protect the city. Cohen and another agency veteran, Larry Sanchez, created an operation inside the NYPD with spies and analysts and an unprecedented international scope. The AP said Sanchez stayed on the CIA payroll while maintaining offices at Police Headquarters and the CIA station in New York.
The revelations of surveillance of New York's Muslim community reignited the verbal battle about freedom versus security, one that has been smoldering since 9/11. "The question we should all have is whether the NYPD is operating a domestic CIA - but without the oversight or regulations that hold it in check," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "You call the U.S. a free country and you do this?" asked Shahid Malick, 28, a Pakistani cabbie from Bay Ridge. "From now on, I can't feel safe in my own mosque because someone might be sitting behind me spying."
But Saleem Akbar, 58, a fabric store owner who is the unofficial mayor of Midwood's large Pakistani community, said the cops are trying to protect everyone in the city. "They are doing it for your children and my children. I don't mind even if they are doing it secretly. If someone is hatching a conspiracy, they are hiding it from me, too. I want them found out," Akbar said. "U.S. security comes first. I don't care if they are doing it in mosques. I don't care if they are doing it in airports. I'm glad they are doing it."
The AP said arrests for even minor crimes could become leverage to persuade someone to become an informant and young Middle Eastern men are singled out for extra questioning.
Rep. Peter King (R-L.I.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he's confident the department is abiding by the Constitution. "I don't see civil rights abuses," King said. "Everyone was critical of law enforcement after 9/11 for not thinking out of the box. The NYPD is getting the job done."
One source familiar with the NYPD counterterror operations said the only way to root out jihadists is to hang out where they might be. "If you're looking for the IRA, you don't go to Katz's Deli - you go to an Irish pub," the source said. The cases against Shahawar Matin Siraj, who was found guilty in 2006 of plotting to bomb the subway, and the two men arrested at Kennedy Airport on their way to join terrorists in Somalia, were developed in such a manner.