In the decade since September 11, the NYPD has created the largest municipal counter-terrorism unit in the world — committing 1,000 officers to the effort, placing detectives in liaison positions around the world and relying on a covert intelligence component that officials say has been essential to unraveling terror plots. There's been very little opposition to the program — but that changed this week.
At a City Council oversight hearing Thursday, several members raised concerns that the NYPD was illegally profiling Muslim neighborhoods through covert surveillance.
Their pushback was inspired by an Associated Press investigative series that alleged the NYPD counter-terrorism program was targeting Muslim American neighborhoods for undercover surveillance and detailed mapping. The AP also reported the NYPD was in a unique partnership with the Central Intelligence Agency and was involved in developing detailed specifics on businesses, mosques and schools that are located in Arab and Muslim neighborhoods.
The NYPD denied that it was engaging in illegal racial or ethnic profiling and said it was operating well within Constitutional safeguards.
At the hearing Commissioner Kelly testified that since September 11, 2001, the City has been targeted at least a dozen times by terrorists in plots targeting transit hubs, the subways and iconic sites like Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge and the World Trade complex.
Kelly said that after the recent deaths of al Qaida leader, Anwar al-Awlaki and his alleged aide Samir Khan in a U.S. drone attack, the NYPD braced for a potential homegrown revenge attack from their supporters, which Kelly said includes individuals based in New York City.
"Khan, who once lived in Queens, had extensive contacts in New York City and published the English language Inspire Magazine, which instructed lone wolves on how to build bombs at home," Kelly told the Public Safety Panel. "The most recent issue identified Grand Central Station as a target."
Kelly said that in several cases "the use of undercover officers and confidential informants was crucial" to foiling the terrorists' plans. "Covert operations maybe the only effective way to identify homegrown terrorists, who are often living here legally and operating alone or with just one or two accomplices."
Councilman Danny Drumm, who chairs the Council's Immigration Committee, told Kelly he was troubled by the AP series. Drumm read Kelly back a portion of Kelly's testimony that explained the rationale for the department's focus on neighborhoods.
"You must be able to quickly be able to pinpoint the likely areas where a foreign operative might find resources or evade law enforcement, what internet cafe in a borough were they likely to use, which SRO," Drumm read.
(Photo: Commissioner Kelly during the hearing./William Alatriste for the NYC Council)
"So I am assuming this a reference to the allegations in the AP stories that you have mapped out Muslim communities, that you know where the bars are, that you know where the mosques in Muslim communities, that you know where Muslims congregate. Is that is reference to that AP story. Have you done that in the Muslim community?" Drumm asked Kelly.
"We've done it in a lot of different communities," Kelly responded. "We have something called the zone assessment unit. We used to have something called the demographics unit that was expanded to a zone assessment team. And it gathers information about geographical areas in the city. Would it include mosques? Would it include Internet cafes, yes."
At one point in the hearing Council member Robert Jackson, who is the only Muslim in the legislative body, asked Commissioner Kelly if he was under surveillance by the NYPD.
"I am the only Muslim member of the City Council of New York and I am an American citizen born and raised in New York City. The question I need to know have I ever been under surveillance by NYPD?"
"I don't believe so, no, no," responded Kelly, who broke the tension in the hearing by then asking "have you paid all your summonses?”
"We don't racially profile," Kelly said emphatically. "We follow leads where ever they take us."
During the hearing it sounded as if Kelly was trying to insulate himself from profiling charges by pointing to the department's diversity profile. He said the NYPD more than ever reflects the diversity of the city it protects. He said more than 50 percent of its 34,000 officers are African-American, Hispanic and Asian. The NYPD now includes officers born in 88 different countries, and has several hundred foreign language speakers.
But at a well attended press conference prior to Kelly’s testimony several Council members and representatives from the Arab-American community said the AP reporting was cited repeatedly as proof the NYPD was illegally profiling Muslims and Arab-Americans.
Staten Island Council Woman Deborah Rose linked the NYPD's counter-intelligence program with the controversial "stop and frisk" strategy used by the NYPD.
"As the chair of the City Council Civil Rights Committee I am really concerned about the infringement on the civil rights of specific ethnic groups who are engaged in mundane activities of daily life and they are being surveilled upon," Rose said. "These policing policies mirror the overly aggressively policing tactics that we are seeing in stop and frisk in communities of color."
(Photo: City council members and Arab-American activists hold a press conference outside City Hall./William Alatriste for the NYC Council)
Linda Sarsour, with the National Network of Arab American Communities, added, "Not only have Muslim and Arab leaders broke bread with Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly, we have invited them into our mosques. We have brought them into our schools, into our non-profit organizations, into our community events and access to our community and today the Arab and Muslim Communities feel betrayed, manipulated and used and that's how we are feeling today."
Sarsour said the NYPD's approach could actually hurt its ability to build trust in Arab-American neighborhoods.
"I want to remind people that last year when that Times Square plot was foiled the first person to put in that call was a Senegalese Muslim American street vendor," Sarsour said.
So far the only actual official fallout from the controversial AP series is the launching of an investigation by the CIA Inspector General into allegations that the agency broke the law by supporting the NYPD's standing up its robust intelligence program.
During his testimony Kelly used an excerpt from a Presidential Executive order to support the legality of the CIA-NYPD relationship. He said the mandate permitted the CIA "to provide specialized equipment, technical knowledge, or assistance of expert personnel for use by any department or agency, or when lives are endangered, to support local law enforcement agencies."