However, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly vigorously defended the need for the NYPD surveillance program in these dangerous times. Bloomberg insists that the police activity was “legal,” ‘’appropriate” and “constitutional.” He condemned any criticism as “just misplaced” and “pandering.”
The most outspoken criticism of the NYPD program so far has come from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Bloomberg notes that the surveillance activities would seem to be covered by two executive orders, signed in 2005 by then-New Jersey Governor Richard Codey, which granted the NYPD limited authority to operate in the state and are still in effect.
The surveillance program is only one of many pro-active anti-terrorism initiatives launched by the NYPD since the 9/11 attack, designed to protect all New Yorkers from the dire threat of Islamic terrorism. These anti-terrorism efforts have enjoyed Mayor Bloomberg’s enthusiastic backing, including a nearly unlimited budget, despite the city’s often-serious fiscal problems. As a result, the NYPD now has an independent anti-terrorism task force, second only to the FBI in its scope. It continues to mount aggressive efforts to detect terrorist plots and potential threats before they can result in fresh attacks on the city and its many high profile targets.
More than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, NYPD anti-terrorism units maintain a high visibility presence at the city’s key choke points, including inspection stations at bridges and tunnels, patrol cars positioned at key road exits, and the installation of closed-circuit surveillance cameras throughout the Manhattan business district.
While working in close cooperation with federal anti-terrorism officials, the NYPD has developed its own sources of data and information on terrorist threats extending far beyond the city limits. NYPD anti-terrorism experts have traveled around the world to consult with their foreign counterparts and to follow up on potential leads using their own investigators, Arabic translators and terrorism analysts.
TERRORISTS STILL TARGETING NYC FOR ATTACKS
Unfortunately, the need for such constant surveillance has not diminished. Since 9/11, the efforts by the NYPD, often in cooperation with federal anti-terrorism officials, have uncovered more than a dozen plots at various stages. They have led to the arrest and prosecution of would-be terrorists before they could result in another attack on the city. Potential targets included key elements of the city’s transportation system and financial district, and synagogues. They invariably involved Muslims living in the US, in some cases more than a thousand miles from New York, who sought to make an international statement by attacking high profile targets in the city. Fortunately, all but one of those plots, the 2010 Times Square car bombing, were thwarted by the work of NYPD and federal anti-terrorism officials.
SURVEILLANCE FOR PREVENTION
The NYPD’s Muslim student surveillance program began with police agents monitoring Muslim student groups on college campuses around the Northeast. In at least one case, the NYPD sent an undercover agent on a whitewater rafting trip with a group of Muslim college students to confirm that the trip was as innocent as it appeared to be.
Starting in 2007, the NYPD’s Demographics Unit also started a canvass of all the Muslim neighborhoods across Newark, New Jersey. It photographed every mosque and cataloged every Muslim business in the city. The results were published in a 60-page guidebook to Newark’s Muslims, which eventually fell into the hands of the Associated Press, exposing the project along with the student surveillance program.
The NYPD surveillance program has enabled the department to build databases pinpointing where Muslims live and buy groceries, what Internet cafes they use and where they watch sports throughout the city, in both suburban New Jersey and Long Island, and on college campuses across the Northeast. The AP reported that the database covers dozens of mosques and student groups, and it contains detailed profiles of Moroccans, Egyptians, Albanians and other local Islamic ethnic groups. For example, the NYPD’s 2006 surveillance of the Masjid Omar mosque in Paterson, NJ included video surveillance of all people who attended the Friday prayer service and the license plates of their cars.
To his credit, Mayor Bloomberg continues to stand behind the program and his police commissioner Ray Kelly despite the criticism. He is totally unapologetic about the NYPD’s anti-terrorism efforts. He declared again last week that it will continue to do “everything that the law permits us to do” to detect terrorists operating in the US before they have a chance to act, even if those activities turn out to be unpopular.
During his weekly radio appearance, Bloomberg said that the NYPD has the legal right to gather information that would be available to anyone about Muslims in the region. “To say that the NYPD should stop at the border is a bit ridiculous.” He also noted that the NYPD officers, in carrying out their surveillance, did nothing more than any other citizen could do.
Bloomberg recalled that New York let its guard down after the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, until it was reminded of the danger on September 11, 2001. “We said back then we are not going to forget this time around,” the mayor said. “We will not. We are not going to forget. We are not going to repeat the mistakes that we made after the 1993 bombing. To let our guard down would just be an outrage. We cannot slack in our vigilance. The threat was real. The threat is real. The threat is not going away. . . This is not a joke. This is not a political statement or a political football to play with.”
KELLY SAYS THE SURVEILLANCE OBEYED COURT RULES
Over the weekend, Commissioner Kelly again vigorously defended both the legality and necessity of his department’s surveillance operations at the Fordham Law School in Manhattan, as pro-Muslim protesters marched outside. He specifically addressed the criticism of surveillance in New Jersey, where activists were encouraged to seek investigations of the NYPD program by public criticism of the operation from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and other elected officials last week.
Kelly noted that the surveillance effort obeyed court rules known as the Handschu guidelines, which limit how and why police can collect intelligence before there’s evidence of a crime. He emphasized that the NYPD monitored groups or entered mosques only when following specific leads.
The police commissioner added that anyone who suggests that police monitoring of websites, visiting of public places or mapping of Islamic neighborhoods is “unlawful,” has “either not read, misunderstood or intentionally obfuscated” legal guidelines restricting its intelligence activities.
“For some, the very act of intelligence gathering seems illegitimate when applied to the crime of terrorism,” Kelly said. “In fact, the Police Department uses many of the same methods to find and stop terrorists that we use to arrest drug dealers, human traffickers and gang leaders,” he told the Fordham group.
“A broad base of knowledge is critically important to our ability to investigate terrorism,” Kelly explained. “It was precisely our failure to understand the context in 1993 that left us vulnerable in 2001. We won’t make that mistake again – on Mayor Bloomberg’s watch or mine.”
While Kelly acknowledged that, “We know that while the vast majority of Muslim student associations and their members are law-abiding, we have seen too many cases in which such groups were exploited.” This justified the reconnaissance as necessary to gather the intelligence needed to penetrate dangerous groups.
PREVENTING FURTHER ATTACKS
While the surveillance program did not lead directly to any arrests, Kelly said that the monitoring of the college student groups helped lead investigators to “very dangerous individuals.” He declared that the larger NYPD surveillance program has been essential to the city’s safety, as it has enabled authorities to thwart more than a dozen terror plots aimed at the city since 9/11.
Responding to complaints by several New Jersey officials that the NYPD had not fully informed them of their activities, Kelly cited the fact that 746 New Jersey residents were killed in the 9/11 attacks.
“If terrorists aren’t limited by borders and boundaries, we can’t be either,” Kelly said. “It is entirely legal for the Police Department to conduct investigations outside of city limits, and we maintain very close relationships with local authorities.”
NEWARK POLICE WERE INFORMED
The NYPD says it informed Newark officials about the operation, and Newark police were briefed before and after. The NYPD claims that since its officers were not making arrests or conducting searches in New Jersey, they were acting within their authority.
While Newark Mayor Cory Booker and the city’s current and former police directors have confirmed that they were notified that the NYPD was operating in their city, they complain that they were misled as to the nature of the program. They say they would have never approved of the effort if they had known that it involved tracking the movements of Muslims, and claim that the failure of the NYPD to reveal the full nature of the operation was a breach of established protocols for cooperation between law enforcement agencies working together on investigations.
The NYPD maintains that since the out of state surveillance was legal and did not require the approval of New Jersey officials, informing them was just a courtesy.
CALLS FOR A FEDERAL PROBE UNSUCCESSFUL SO FAR
Since the surveillance program was revealed last August, members of Congress, Muslim civil rights groups and university and New Jersey officials have asked the Justice Department to investigate the NYPD’s intelligence division. Among those on Capitol Hill encouraging an investigation is New Jersey Democrat Senator Robert Menendez. Groups attacking the program include American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the American Arab Forum and the Council of Shia Professionals.
Despite the criticism from the liberal establishment, the Obama administration has refused to either endorse or repudiate the program. When asked by liberal members of Congress about the complaints from Muslim groups, Attorney General Eric Holder said he had just begun to look into them.
Federal investigations into police departments typically focus on police abuse or racial profiling in arrests. Since 9/11, the Justice Department has never publicly investigated a police department for its surveillance in national security investigations. At the same time, the NYPD’s aggressive anti-terrorism effort has been widely cited by federal officials as a model program.
Last year, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser John Brennan called the NYPD’s efforts “heroic.” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, whose department gives grant money to the NYPD, refused to discuss the city’s counter-terrorism tactics, as has Tom Perez, the Justice Department’s top civil rights lawyer.
Despite the media uproar, it seems unlikely that the Justice Department will launch any serious investigation, and it certainly would try to avoid doing so before the November elections. If the feds were to interfere with NYPD counter-terrorism operations, and New York City were to then suffer another preventable terrorist attack, chas v’sholom, the political backlash against Obama would be devastating to his re-election chances.
SOME FEDERAL MONEY WAS USED
The latest effort by civil rights advocates to initiate a probe is based on allegations that some equipment and funds used for the surveillance program came from the federal government.
The federal funds came from a little-known grant intended to help law enforcement fight drug crimes.
The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area grant program, known as HIDTA, is overseen by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Since 9/11, the Bush and Obama administrations have allowed some of the $135 million provided to New York and New Jersey from HIDTA to be used for local anti-terrorism programs. Critics of the NYPD have raised the use of HIDTA funds as an excuse for federal intervention into the surveillance program, even though it broke no federal laws.
The director of the HIDTA program insists that almost all of its grant money to New York and New Jersey has been spent fighting drugs, and that some supplies were also for surveillance in drug cases, such as the $1.3 million spent on police vehicles for plainclothes police. The same was true for the computers paid for by HIDTA money that were used to process and store information gathered about Muslim college students and mosque activities.
AG HOLDER SAYS HE IS JUST STARTING TO LOOK INTO IT
When Holder was questioned by Democrat Congressman Mike Honda last week, he said that police seeking to monitor activities by citizens “should only do so when there is a basis to believe that something inappropriate is occurring or potentially could occur.” He pointedly did not suggest that a Justice Department investigation of the NYPD was imminent.
“I don’t even know if the program as it has been described in the news media was an appropriate way to proceed, was consistent with the way in which the federal government would have done these things,” Holder said. “Our examination of this has been limited, at least at this point, to the letters that have come in. We’re only beginning our review.”
Complaints by Muslim civil rights advocates to the New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman fell on deaf ears. In response to a letter from 33 civil liberties and Islamic civic organizations asking for an investigation, the attorney general’s office issued a statement turning down the request. It stated politely that, “while we share some of the serious concerns raised in the letter, there are significant legal and investigative obstacles that impede our ability to launch a review of the matter at this time.”
NEW JERSEY OFFICIALS TRYING TO PLEASE THE MUSLIMS
So far, the greatest interest in conducting a serious investigation of the program has come from New Jersey state officials. Over the weekend, Muslim civil rights activists met with New Jersey State Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa and other state and federal law enforcement officials for nearly three hours to discuss their complaints over the program. New Jersey officials have yet to announce their own investigation.
In addition to the attorney general and about 20 Muslim leaders, Michael Ward, the head of the FBI’s Newark field office, Paul Fishman, the US Attorney for the District of New Jersey, Major Gerald Lewis of the New Jersey State Police, and Edward Dickson, of the New Jersey Department of Homeland Security and Preparedness also attended.
Chiesa told the Muslim activists that he was reviewing what legal jurisdiction New Jersey has over NYPD operations in the state before taking any formal action. He issued a statement saying that the meeting was the “beginning of an open, ongoing, and productive dialogue with New Jersey’s Muslim-American community. We will continue to reach out to the community and keep the communication channels open as we move forward in our fact-finding.”
US Attorney Paul Fishman said after the meeting that “the issues that were raised relating to the New York Police Department are obviously of huge concern to the Arab and Muslim community in New Jersey, and we want them to know that we’re responsive to their concerns and want to hear what they have to say, so that in determining what we’re going to do, we know what the community thinks.” But he also declined to say whether he would launch an investigation.
IS CHRISTIE ANGRY THAT HE WASN’T TOLD?
The reason for the violent reaction to the NYPD surveillance program by Governor Christie seems puzzling. The most active phase of the program took place before he was governor. Perhaps his anger has to do with the fact that while the intelligence-gathering was taking place in New Jersey in 2007, he was the local US Attorney and was not briefed about it.
Christie suggested that by failing to consult with him and other state officials about the nature of the surveillance program, NYPD Commissioner Kelly was guilty of the same lack of coordination that helped facilitate the 9/11 attacks.
“9/11 was not prevented because law enforcement agencies weren’t talking to each other, they were being selfish, they were being provincial, they were being paranoid, they were being arrogant. I do not want to return to those days. . .
“I understand we need covert surveillance to protect the people of our state and our region,” the governor said. “No problems with that. My concern is, why can’t you communicate with the people here in New Jersey, with law enforcement here in New Jersey? Are we somehow not trustworthy?”
Christie then went into something of a rant, accusing Kelly of adopting a high-handed attitude “born out of arrogance, or out of paranoia, or out of both.” He mocked the police commissioner as pretending to be “all-knowing, all-seeing,” and that the NYPD had a “masters of the universe” mentality.
“They think that their jurisdiction is the world,” he said. “Their jurisdiction is New York City.”
PETER KING CONDEMNS CHRISTIE FOR BEING NARROW-MINDED
Christie was blasted for his criticism of Kelly and the NYPD by fellow Republican Peter King of New York, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee. King said, “I can’t believe Governor Christie is so narrow-minded that somehow he thinks terrorism is going to stop at the state line or the city line. I wish Chris Christie were more concerned about keeping people alive than he is about trying to score cheap political points.”
King, who has supported Christie in the past, strongly defended Kelly’s surveillance policies as both necessary and appropriate.
“This isn’t some liberal teachers union that Chris Christie’s fighting with here,” King said. “This is Ray Kelly, who literally has the most effective counterterrorism force in the country protecting the people of New York and of New Jersey.”
On the other hand, Christie’s comments drew praise from Muslim leader Aref Assaf, head of the American Arab Forum, based in Paterson, NJ.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker said that NYPD surveillance had caused “egregious harm to Muslims in Newark. People are are afraid to pray in Mosques. They are afraid to eat in restaurants. A chill has been put on my community; the pain and the anguish are real. We are in a very difficult position in our city with the climate that has been created.”
However, even its critics acknowledge that it still unclear as to whether any state or federal law was violated by the NYPD’s surveillance program.
TIMES SQUARE BOMBER HIGHLIGHTS THE DANGER
While some concern for the rights of minorities is clearly legitimate, it still must be weighed against the constant threat of terrorism to everyone in American society. New York history has shown that despite the high level of vigilance by the NYPD since 9/11, the danger of attack from undetected terrorists remains real. The prime example of this took place on May 1, 2010, when Faisal Shahzad, an Americanized Pakistani immigrant who had been living in Connecticut for several years, attempted to detonate a powerful car bomb on a side-street just off Times Square in midtown Manhattan. The bomb fizzled, but according to NYPD ordnance experts, if it had exploded as intended, it could have killed hundreds of tourists and passersby.
Shahzad had been very clever and well trained. Before parking the car bomb and lighting the trigger, he had avoided all detection, However, his plot was foiled in the end due to another NYPD anti-terrorism initiative.
The “If you see something, say something” public information program has, to some extent, recruited all New Yorkers to be on the lookout for signs of a potential terrorists attack. In this case, the initiative prompted a Times Square street vendor to alert police in the area to smoke coming from Shahzad’s car bomb in time to clear the area and remove the threat before any damage could be done.
Although Shahzad had been completely unknown to authorities before the attack, within two days, his identity had been discovered and his movements tracked, leading to his arrest on board a plane at JFK airpost about to take off for Dubai. Shahzad later admitted that he had been recruited, financed and trained for the attack by the Pakistani Taliban shortly after he became a US citizen.
The near-tragedy of the Times Square bombing attack was a disturbing reminder of the vulnerability of the city to home-grown Islamic terrorists who are capable of “hiding in plain sight” before they strike. It also confirmed the continuing threat to New York City from Islamic terrorist groups around the world who are actively plotting to destroy the American way of life.
Members of an Islamic coalition stood in front of police headquarters with signs Monday to support the NYPD’s aggressive counterterrorism efforts, saying the agency is doing what is necessary to protect the city and Muslims.
Among about three dozen members and supporters of the American Islamic Leadership Coalition attending the rally was the narrator of the documentary about the dangers of radical Islam that the NYPD showed at a training area but disavowed once it was attacked.
“We are not here to criticize the NYPD, but rather thank them for monitoring extremists – a job that Muslims should be doing,” said the narrator, Dr. Zudhi Jasser.
Jasser and others, like Manda Zand Ervin, said that the danger is clearly coming from within the Muslim community, and that it’s up to other Muslims to help law enforcement stop the threat. They galvanized their efforts and formed the coalition in 2010 after congressional hearings last summer examining the radical Islamic terror threat in the U.S.
Rallies by opponents of the NYPD’s monitoring have drawn hundreds of people.
Imam Qazi Qayyoom, of Queens, said he came Monday to support the police department because he is grateful to them.
“They protect us, they allow us to pray in peace; some of us don’t have those rights in the countries where we came from,” he said. “We thank them.”
U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said at the rally that the department deserves a medal for its work. He lambasted coverage by the AP and The New York Times as biased and said the news outlets were “disgracing themselves.”
He said the department should be a model for other departments around the country. While King was speaking, a heckler yelled from across the plaza: “American Muslims do not support brutality.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.