What prevents government from singling out a religious or political group for heightened, invasive surveillance and coercive recruitment into the ranks of state informants? In the Big Apple, the answer seems to be, not much.
In August, the Associated Press’s Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman reported that the NYPD, with training and support from the CIA, has developed an extensive network of informants, long-term undercover officers and agents provocateurs targeting New York’s Muslim communities.
A so-called “Demographic Unit” and a “Terrorist Interdiction Unit” within the New York Police Department (NYPD) deployed “mosque crawlers” and “rakers” to trawl Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities to “rake the coals, looking for hot spots.” Allegedly, these units have singled out businesses and civil associations for monitoring based on citizens’ First Amendment–protected speech. And they exploit arrest and charging discretion powers to “leverage” people from those communities into becoming informants against their friends and neighbors.
You might think that the Constitution provides recourse against such measures. Indeed, the framers thought they were going out of their way to protect unpopular minorities—both through the structure of government (specifically, both the system of checks and balances and also the divide between the federal government and the states) and also through the Bill of Rights. But we are learning that neither is absolute. The NYPD program illustrates how both can dismally fail to protect minority groups in the absence of sufficient public attention and political will.
The NYPD has denied Apuzzo and Goldman’s story, although the latter claim independent corroboration from inside sources. Independent evidence from past criminal trials also points to the pervasive use of informants and “rakers” in New York’s Muslim communities.
Given the NYPD’s history, I do not find their denial credible. Even apart from the collaborating evidence, there is ample reason to believe the AP story.
In August 2007, the NYPD released a new counterterrorism strategy that had as its stated aim “to assist policy makers and law enforcement officials” in identifying dangerous terrorist “radicals.” Cherry-picking details from five “case studies,” the NYPD proclaimed that it had found “typical signatures” of terrorist radicalization—wearing “traditional Islamic clothing,” “growing a beard and “becoming involved in social activism and community issues.” Arab, Muslim and South Asian groups—with whom I worked at the time—were deeply alarmed by the implications of these claims, and queried the NYPD about whether they were the basis of actual policy. Then, as now, the NYPD claimed that it had solely lighted on a way to identify terrorists—and was not putting its so-called insights into practice through instructions to cops engaged in terrorism-related investigations or simply patrolling local beats. It would be astonishing if an institution that takes elaborate pains to portray itself as ultra-competent on terrorism matters would fail to follow its own policy recommendations. Far more plausibly, their denials are hollow.