Can Anyone Rein in the NYPD's Spies?
New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly responds to questions during a news conference Friday, Feb. 24, 2012 in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
“Where’s the outrage?” was the refrain on a recent weeknight at a panel organized by the Police Reform Organizing Project in Manhattan. The question at hand was how to rein in a New York Police Department that has become synonymous with misconduct, from racist stop-and-frisks to murder: three suspects were fatally shot in a single week in February, among them 18-year-old Ramarley Graham, gunned down in the bathroom of his Bronx home.
But it was a different scandal that inspired recent—and widely disregarded—calls for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly to resign: the NYPD’s unchecked surveillance of New York’s Muslim communities, which, the Associated Press revealed this past fall, have been targeted for years by an eerily named “Demographic Unit,” which monitored local mosques, restaurants and Internet cafes. Not only has the NYPD spied on some of its own collaborators; Kelly recently admitted—after fervent denials—to involvement in a fearmongering propaganda film called The Third Jihad.
Then the Associated Press broke another bombshell: in addition to the “Rakers” and “Mosque Crawlers” monitoring Muslim New Yorkers, the NYPD had branched out beyond city and state limits to keep tabs on Muslim student associations around the Northeast. More than a dozen schools, including Yale, the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers, had been infiltrated. One now famous rafting trip organized by students at the City College of New York took place under the watchful eye of an agent who called himself “Jibran” and took notes on what the rafters discussed and ate and how many times they prayed.
The details are occasionally shocking—targets included a small elementary school in a private home in Newark—but in many ways the program is merely business as usual. In 2007 the NYPD released a ninety-two-page report titled “Radicalization in the West,” warning that impressionable Muslim-American men are being primed for jihad at such “radicalization incubators” as “cafes, cab driver hangouts, flophouses, prisons, student associations, nongovernmental organizations, hookah (water pipe) bars, butcher shops and book stores.” The study warned that while in the first stage these men “look, act, talk and walk like everyone around them,” they are in fact “slowly building the mind-set, intention and commitment to conduct jihad.” (The report even mentioned whitewater rafting as an activity to watch for.)
The report was the product of an NYPD that has morphed in the decade since 9/11 into an imposing and largely independent counterterrorism force, complete with high-tech surveillance cameras and nuclear radiation detectors, not to mention support from the CIA, which, as the AP pointed out last summer, is “prohibited from spying on Americans but was instrumental in transforming the NYPD’s intelligence unit.” As Commissioner Kelly told 60 Minutes host Scott Pelley in the fall, “I believed that we had to create our own counterterrorism capacity, indeed our own counterterrorism division. And that plan was put into effect fairly rapidly. And the reason we were able to do that is this is a hierarchical organization.”
“In other words, you’re the boss,” said Pelley.
“That’s correct,” answered Kelly.
In the same interview, Kelly boasted that the NYPD has the capacity to shoot down a plane. Mayor Bloomberg later added that the force “has lots of capabilities you don’t know about, and you won’t know about them.”
One thing we do know is that the White House paid for at least part of the NYPD’s spying ring, through funds meant to fight drugs. The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, overseen by the director of National Drug Control Policy, the “drug czar,” has funneled $135 million to New York and New Jersey since September 11, 2001. It is not clear how much was used for surveillance, but some did go to cars and computers used by the NYPD’s intelligence division. Not surprisingly, the HIDTA program is ripe for abuse—it’s the program that enabled Maryland state police officers to infiltrate antiwar and anti–death penalty groups between 2005 and ‘06 and put activists’ names into a database of possible terrorists.
In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee on February 28, Attorney General Eric Holder struck a cautious note when asked about the spying program, saying that no investigation into the NYPD is under way and calling Commissioner Kelly “a friend.” But he also estimated that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has launched some eighteen investigations into potential abuses at police departments around the country.
“You’re going to get a lot of people asking you to get involved,” Bronx Congressman José Serrano told Holder. At least thirty-four Representatives have called for the DoJ to investigate the collusion between the NYPD and the CIA since the surveillance program was first reported; New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt has been particularly outspoken. The ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have also called for an investigation.
So far, the White House has been unresponsive. The AP has reported that it claims “no control” over and “no opinion” on the HIDTA program, or its use to spy on ordinary Muslims. Nor does Congress, which approves funding, have details.
So where’s the outrage? Outside Washington there is plenty, particularly on campuses and in affected communities, where news of the spying has had a chilling effect. This must be channeled into activism, pressuring not only the Obama administration but local officials on whose watch these violations took place—and may still be occuring. How elected leaders respond will speak volumes about whether their commitment to protecting the country extends to protecting the rights of Americans—all Americans—regardless of their ethnicity or faith.