Mark LeVine writes:
Only two weeks before the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Associated Press has broken a story that reminds us of just how much America has changed during the last decade, and how the government – and as important, some of the country’s most powerful corporations – routinely intrude into the lives of communities and individuals in a manner that would few would have thought imaginable the day before the planes struck the World Trade Center.
After a lengthy investigation, the Associated Press has published a story detailing a highly secretive decade-long relationship between the CIA and the New York Police Department (NYPD), in which the two agencies have worked together in “a massive covert programme to monitor the Muslim communities” living in the New York metropolitan area and surrounding regions.
The program is troubling for a host of reasons. It involves potentially serious violations of federal law, including First Amendment protections. Morever, it bears a strong resemblance to programs launched during the Civil Rights and Vietnam era, which saw techniques, technologies and even personnel from the US military and intelligence communities deployed against citizens within the United States.
When military tactics and strategies drawn from the front lines of war are applied to radically different contexts, the results are rarely beneficial to the health of a democracy.
According to the AP report, “The [NYPD] has dispatched teams of undercover officers, known as ‘rakers,’ into minority neighborhoods as part of a human mapping program, according to officials directly involved in the program. They’ve monitored daily life in bookstores, bars, cafes and nightclubs. Police have also used informants, known as ‘mosque crawlers,’ to monitor sermons, even when there’s no evidence of wrongdoing. NYPD officials have scrutinized imams and gathered intelligence on cab drivers and food cart vendors, jobs often done by Muslims. Many of these operations were built with help from the CIA, which is prohibited from spying on Americans but was instrumental in transforming the NYPD’s intelligence unit.”
Despite such prohibitions on spying on Americans, the NYPD and CIA have built a “partnership that has blurred the bright line between foreign and domestic spying.” The relationship has included a senior, active-duty CIA officer being hired by the NYPD to set up its intelligence programmes and another senior officer working as a “clandestine operative” inside police headquarters, and the CIA training of at least one police detective at the agency’s spy school.
Having watched the World Trade Center fall with my own eyes and then had to cope with a newborn son breathing in the soot and toxin-tainted air for weeks after, it’s hard not to sympathize with the NYPD’s willingness to “push the envelope” of police procedures in order to protect New Yorkers from a similar attack. It’s also hard not to agree with the assessment by NY cops that they can never again rely on the federal government to protect New York and therefore must become an active player in gathering and acting on intelligence that might affect the city’s eight million citizens.
Indeed, the NYPD’s “success” in these operations points out the weakness that still hampers effective intelligence work by the American intelligence community: Most CIA officers are white men who could never blend into a Muslim community; but the NYPD’s 34,000 officers reflect the ethnic and religious mosaic of New York, providing it with a host of Arab and South Asian officers who speak the languages and intimately know the cultures, making it much easier for them, effectively, to spy on their communities.
And it’s clear that this is what the NYPD is doing, having become, in the AP‘s words, “one of the country’s most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies.” Intelligence-read, spy-agencies spy; they aren’t set up primarily to look for evidence of crimes, but to gather intelligence, knowledge that might later be useful do shape policies or influence the behaviour of the groups or communities being surveilled.
Police are supposed to monitor citizens only to the extent there is evidence or sufficient suspicion of criminal activity or its planning. But the AP reports that in many cases members of the unit go out of their way not to have their information, or even their existence, brought to a court of law.
Simply put, if the intelligence that the NYPD intelligence unit is gathering is not useful to the judicial process, then it’s not police work, it’s spying. If Americans think being spied on by their government isn’t such a big deal, they can talk to the millions of Arabs who’ve rebelled in good measures because of decades of such practices, or the citizens of former Communist countries in Eastern Europe. All of these governments also justified spying with the need to “protect” the state and citizens from potentially dangerous people. But it always ends the same way.