BOB GARFIELD: In the aftermath of 9/11, civil libertarians criticized the Patriot Act as a Draconian reaction born not out of reason but of fear. It granted broad police powers to federal authorities to surveil Americans and conduct sweeping investigations without probable cause, in secret. What it did not do was authorize wholesale profiling of citizens.
In New York City, however, police officials immediately began an intelligence program to monitor suspicious persons. And by “suspicious” they meant Muslim.
CORRESPONDENT: New developments in the controversial battle surrounding the NYPD's surveillance of Muslim mosques, businesses and student groups across the river…
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CORRESPONDENT: For six months, starting in late 2006, New York police scanned open access websites of Muslim student organizations at several universities in the Northeast.
CORRESPONDENT: A group of eight American Muslims from New Jersey has filed a federal lawsuit calling on the New York Police Department to stop its surveillance and intelligence- gathering program that targets Muslims.
CORRESPONDENT: They say they’re upset over a report that the NYPD, the New York City Police Department,spied on Muslim communities after 9/11.
BOB GARFIELD: Associated Press reporters Adam Goldman and Mark* Apuzzo broke the story of the NYPD Surveillance Program in 2011, in a Pulitzer-winning series that continues today. The series has yielded a book titled, Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit and bin Laden's Final Plot Against America. The story intertwines a nerve-wracking hunt for a terrorist on his way to bomb a New York subway, with the astonishing documentation of an Intel program that consisted of religious profiling on a grand scale.
Built by ex-CIA Operations Chief David Cohen and with the help of an active CIA agent, Police Chief Raymond Kelly's unit had staggering reach.
MATT APUZZO: They believed they needed to be in the neighborhoods and they needed to know where the Muslims were. And they targeted ancestries of interest, people from Syria or Pakistan or Egypt, and they built files on their businesses, where they played cricket, where they watch sports, where they smoke their - their hookah pipes. And they put all of this in secret files. On top of that, they had units that handled informants, and they created an army of informants and, and sent them out into the community.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so you’ve got Muslims being recruited to spy on their fellow Muslims – neighbors and family members and friends, and so forth. And you've got this vast surveillance of every storefront and mosque in the five boroughs. This is the NYPD. It sounds like Stasi. Did they turn into Stasi?
MATT APUZZO: I, I don’t think that’s – I really don't think that’s a fair comparison. I mean, these weren’t storm troopers. You know, we met a lot of these guys. They're good guys, right? I mean, they’re – you know, one of the people we, we interviewed was the lieutenant who was overseeing the Demographics Unit. And he comes back from Iraq and, you know, he’s this war hero, and they tell him he’s gonna run this new program and he thinks it’s great. And he’s lost friends to terrorism, and he's rarin’ to go. He feels like he’s protecting the country.
And then, over the course of, you know, years, as he begins to see the files that are coming in and some of his Arabic-speaking officers say to him, hey, I kind of feel terrible about this, [LAUGHS] I’m just like spying on my own neighborhood. And he’s like, no, no, no, it’s fine, like at least you’re helping us rule people out. But over time, he starts to see we’re not making cases, we’re not catchin’ anybody. Our guys are going back to the same restaurants over and over again because they like the food.
They’re going out and buying pastries and then heading home. It’s just not working. And you start to see this unit through their eyes.
And I think the Stasi comparison, it’s unfair to, to the NYPD, but it’s certainly - this is a police department that has become more intrusive and more surveillance-bent than any other police department that we know of, since 9/11.
BOB GARFIELD: There were initial denials about the scale of the program and the details?
MATT APUZZO: Yeah, we sort of just stumbled onto the story. We started reporting on the story for the Associated Press in 2011, and we thought it would make a good 9/11 anniversary story about the transformation of the NYPD Intelligence Division. And when we weren't allowed to have an interview with Ray Kelly, the Police Commissioner or Dave Cohen, the Head of Intelligence, we had this long discussion with their police spokesman. And we had told them the topics we wanted to talk about in advance, and one of them was the Demographics Unit.
And so, we’re in the interview and he says, well, there’s no such unit. And we’re like, well, there’s no such unit? It’s like, no. And I said, well, has there ever been anything even informally called the Demographics Unit? No. And, and Adam went on and tried to press him harder and he goes, look, you know, somebody’s got an active imagination. [LAUGHS] This is fiction. You know, this is – you’ve got it wrong. And when we sat down with our editors, it was sort of like, man, well why would they deny what we know to be true? And that led us to keep reporting even more, and ultimately we got a hold of a couple of thousand pages of their internal police files, which, obviously, proved that this was going on. But it was the denial, actually, that made us more interested and drove us to keep reporting, because it was like, wow, what else don’t we know?
BOB GARFIELD: And the files, did you get them through Freedom of Information requests, leaks, what?
ADAM GOLDMAN: No. The files were actually leaked to us by people at the NYPD, and multiple people, for various different reasons. Someone perhaps – hey look, look at this great stuff we’re doing or, this is wrong or, I think this is illegal. Yeah, it was really interesting. We had our own little mini WikiLeaks going on, the NYPD’s most sensitive operations. And we actually used some of those, along with others we obtained while reporting the book. And we put them up on our website, and there are endnotes in the book, and people can actually read them.
BOB GARFIELD: The book begins with the story of Najibullah Zazi, who is a young who had lived in New York, became an al- Qaeda recruit, wound up trained in a terrorist training camp. But, as the book picks up, he is in Aurora, Colorado preparing a bomb that he hopes to bring to New York to blow up the subway. He was radicalized according to the template described by the New York Police Department, and yet, despite [LAUGHS] this extraordinarily pervasive intelligence program, never, ever showed up on the NYPD's radar.
MATT APUZZO: Right. And it was not for lack of trying. The NYPD had infiltrated Zazi’s mosque. They had turned his imam into a cooperator. They had visited the travel agency where Zazi bought the tickets to Pakistan. They had been to the restaurants in his neighborhood. They had been to the YMCA around the corner. They had infiltrated one of his co-conspirator student groups. So there was no shortage of opportunities, if these programs were to work to catch the exact guy they were built to catch. And so, what we look at is what worked and what didn't, to stop the most significant al-Qaeda plot inside the United States since 9/11.
BOB GARFIELD: And it turned out to be traditional espionage and law enforcement, not NYPD mega-profiling.
MATT APUZZO: Exactly. It was collaboration between the NSA, CIA, FBI, the NYPD officers assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, everything that we hoped would improve after 9/11.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, NYPD failed to identify Zazi. Through the course of this program, which covered not only the five boroughs but New Jersey and, actually, foreign cities, as well, where they had agents stationed, the encroachment on privacy, civil liberties, you know, the basic freedom of speech and assembly and religion that took place here, is there anybody who now thinks that the law enforcement overreach had any tangible benefits, in the end?
MATT APUZZO: It, it’s not exactly clear this was an overreach. I mean, the NYPD, after 9/11, [LAUGHS] went to court and they’re like, we need the authority to do these things, and a Federal judge said, okay, and they did ‘em. So, often like we’re hearing with the NSA debate, everybody knew we had a Patriot Act, everybody knew we expanded wiretapping authorities.
What we tried to do in our book is we tried to say, hey, here’s what the government did with that power. We actually don’t say that, that it was illegal or that it was an overreach. We’re saying, hey, this is how government took the power we, as a people, gave it, and this is how they used it on us. And it might not be an overreach. I mean, you know, we as a populace get to decide that, in the end.
BOB GARFIELD: The usual suspects, politicians, and so forth, have expressed concern, varying degrees of, of outrage about the violation of civil liberties that this operation seems to embody. But it's not as though the American public is foaming at the mouth in disgust. Are you disappointed by how little the public seems to mind?
ADAM GOLDMAN: I think I’m - I think I'm discouraged by the fact that this hasn't generated more of a debate. You know, in New York, after our - some of our stories broke that we won the Pulitzer for, there were polls done in New York, and it seemed like people were behind this effort. And is that going to change? This wasn’t even an issue in the mayoral race ;until the end, until we put out a story, in association with the book, that the NYPD was trying to put snitches on the boards of mosques.
So, as a reporter, you know, I don't think, you know, Matt and I are going to be covering this forever, but there’s this huge intelligent ap – security apparatus in New York. Who – who’s covering it? Who’s pulling the curtain back? ‘Cause I suspect what Matt and I discovered is, is only a small part of what’s going on.
BOB GARFIELD: Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman are the authors of Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit and bin Laden's Final Plot Against America. Matt and Adam, thank you very much.
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MATT APUZZO: Thank for having us.
ADAM GOLDMAN: Thank you very much!
*In our segment "Enemies Within," we incorrectly identified AP writer Matt Apuzzo as 'Mark Apuzzo.' We regret the error.