WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
The NYPD is refuting a report that its counter-terrorism unit had an unprecedented collaboration with the Central Intelligence Agency and used spying as an intelligence-gathering tactic that was an end run around existing prohibitions against domestic spying by the CIA. The AP also described the use of undercover teams dispatched to act as “rakers” in minority neighborhoods to help develop detailed demographic profiles of targeted neighborhoods.
The Associated Press, which published the report Wednesday, claims the department has been using tactics that pose the potential of violating the civil liberties of the targeted populations. But NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said elements of the account were “marked by outright fiction.”
Under U.S. law, the CIA is prohibited from gathering domestic intelligence.
"There is no CIA personnel acting as undercovers," said Browne. “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. We don’t apologize for it and we’re not deterred by petit jealousies that success made breed,” said Browne in a statement responding to AP.
Browne confirmed that the chief of the NYPD's intelligence division is led by David Cohen, a veteran of the CIA prior to coming to the NYPD in 2002. He said the department’s counter-intelligence program had helped foil 13 terror plots since September 11, 2001, through working with the FBI and other federal agencies.
The AP story prompted civil liberty groups to renew their calls for the New York City Council, and even Congress, to exercise oversight over the NYPD's robust counter-intelligence efforts which includes and several detectives serving overseas.
Speaking on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, AP investigative Matt Apuzzo, who broke the story, said the NYPD was working to blur the lines.
“We have the largest police force in the country working in an unprecedented relationship with the CIA, doing things that the federal government could not do on its own,” Apuzzo said.
In defense of the current collaboration, a U.S. official countered, “If anyone is suggesting that the CIA is overstepping its legal bounds and spying on Americans, they’re just plain wrong. Lawful interactions on counter-terrorism make complete sense in today’s world.”
A CIA spokesperson said the AP story mischaracterized the nature and scope of the CIA's support to the NYPD. "Our cooperation, in coordination with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is exactly what the American people deserve and have come to expect following 9/11," the CIA spokesperson stated. "None of the support we have provided to the NYPD can be rightly characterized as 'domestic spying' by the CIA. Any suggestion along those lines is simply wrong."
For years, the New York Civil Liberties Union has been in protracted litigation with the NYPD alleging that the department violated civil liberties in the run-up and during the 2004 Republican National Convention.
Donna Lieberman, director of the NYCLU’s executive director, said it’s time for the City Council to exercise its oversight responsibilities over the NYPD’s counter-terrorism program.
“Is anybody watching the shop? Is the NYPD — and are these operations accountable to anybody? Unfortunately, it appears that that’s not the case,” Lieberman said.
Both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have vigorously defended the NYPD tactics as part of the RNC policing, as well as the broader counter-intelligence program.
City council Public safety Chair Peter Vallone defended the NYPD counter-terrorism strategy and said the department’s approach is a direct response to recommendations from panels, such as the 9/11 Commission, calling for greater collaboration among local, regional and federal agencies.
“We have done extensive oversight of the NYPD’s terror activities and that oversight includes confidential briefings by the commissioner to myself,” Vallone said in a phone interview. “So they left all of that out of the article.”
In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Commissioner Kelly launched an unprecedented outreach to Muslims within the department, and in the community at large, offering a career tract to officers who were fluent in languages like Arabic, Farsi and Pashto. The department began to hold a regular Ramadan celebration and engaged an imam as a police chaplain.
The AP report prompted some Muslim groups to challenge that NYPD’s record for engagement in their community.
“Due to all of these sorts of cases, which people in the community are quite aware of, and due to the history of struggles that a lot of people previously have mentioned, the NYPD's credibility is bankrupt,” said Fahd Ahmed, legal and policy director at DRUM, Desis Rising Up and Moving, a South Asian organization. “Not only bankrupt, but it is running a deficit in Muslim communities.”
Aisha Al-Adawiya, the executive director of Women in Islam, said the revelations could undo years of cooperation between the Muslim community and the NYPD.
“We feel completely violated, and it really threatens, very seriously, any movement going forward, with any real sense of trust in police officers,” Al-Adawiya said.
With Arun Venugopal