New York Magazine has an epic report on the secret unit built by the NYPD to infiltrate and monitor the city’s various communities for un-American sentiment:
The activities Kelly set in motion after 9/11 pushed deeply into the private lives of New Yorkers, surveilling Muslims in their mosques, their sporting fields, their businesses, their social clubs, even their homes in a way not seen in America since the FBI and CIA monitored antiwar activists during the Nixon administration.
Putting a CIA officer inside a police department was unprecedented. The CIA, by its very charter, was prohibited from having any “police, subpoena, or law enforcement powers or internal security functions.” But 9/11 had changed the equation.
To the extent Sanchez had an official title, it was the CIA director’s counterterrorism liaison to the state of New York. In reality, he was Cohen’s personal CIA representative, with an office at the CIA station in Manhattan and another at NYPD.
Sanchez and Cohen met and hashed out their vision for a new NYPD. The city’s pockets of cloistered Middle Eastern and South Asian neighborhoods were what most worried the two CIA veterans. The 9/11 attacks had been planned in communities walled off from the police by language, religion, and culture.
Cohen and Sanchez’s guiding idea was that if the NYPD had its own eyes and ears in the ethnic communities of the five boroughs, maybe things could be different. They needed to be in bookshops to spot the terrorist with his newly grown beard, or in restaurants to overhear friends ranting about America. If detectives infiltrated Muslim student groups, maybe they could identify young men seething with embryonic fanaticism.
Of course, the behaviors to be monitored were common not only to the 9/11 hijackers but also to a huge population of innocent people. Most café customers, gym members, college kids, and pub customers were not terrorists. Most devout Muslims weren’t either. To catch the few, the NYPD would spy on the many.
Sanchez told colleagues that he had borrowed the idea from Israeli methods of controlling the military-occupied West Bank. But the proposal ignored some important differences between the U.S. and Israel. Brooklyn and Queens, for instance, were not occupied territories or disputed land. And, where Muslims are concerned, no one would choose Israel as a model of civil liberties.
This was the genesis of a secret police squad, which came to be called the Demographics Unit. Documents related to this new unit were stamped NYPD SECRET.
The Demographics Unit began simply enough, with a copy of the 2000 U.S. Census, looking for 28 “ancestries of interest.” Nearly all were Muslim. There were Middle Eastern and South Asian countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Syria, and Egypt. Former Soviet states like Uzbekistan and Chechnya were included because of their large Muslim populations. The last “ancestry” on the list was “American Black Muslim.”
When Cohen went searching for officers who could blend in to Muslim neighborhoods, he didn’t have to look far. He recruited young Middle Eastern officers who spoke Arabic, Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu. They would be the ones raking the coals, looking for hot spots, and they became known as “rakers.”
Every day, the rakers set out from the Brooklyn Army Terminal, where the Demographics Unit was based, and visited businesses in teams of two. Their job was to look like any other young men stepping in off the street.
The routine was almost always the same, whether they were visiting a restaurant, deli, barbershop, or travel agency. The two rakers would enter and casually chat with the owner. The first order of business was to determine his ethnicity and that of the patrons. This would determine which file the business would go into. A report on Pakistani locations, for instance, or one on Moroccans. Next, they’d do what the NYPD called “gauging sentiment.” Were the patrons observant Muslims? Did they wear traditionally ethnic clothes? Were the women wearing hijabs?
If the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera was playing on the TV, the police would note it and observe how people were acting. Were they laughing, smiling, or cheering at reports of U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan? On their way out, the rakers would look at bulletin boards. Was a rally planned in the neighborhood? The rakers might attend. Was there a cricket league? The rakers might join.
Surveillance turned out to be habit-forming. Cohen and Sanchez’s efforts also reached beyond the Muslim community. Undercover officers traveled the country, keeping tabs on liberal protest groups like Time’s Up and the Friends of Brad Will. Police infiltrated demonstrations and collected information about antiwar groups and those that marched against police brutality.
Read the rest at New York Magazine.
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