The NYPD's 'astounding' domestic spying program

The AP reports that New York City police, with the help of the CIA, skirt domestic surveillance laws to snoop on Americans in minority neighborhoods

The Al-iman mosque in Astoria, Queens: Undercover NYPD officers called "mosque crawlers" are reportedly spying muslim communities regardless of suspected crime.
(Image credit: Emily Anne Epstein/Corbis)

It is no secret that the New York Police Department launched its own global intelligence unit after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But it's news to almost everyone that the NYPD, in close and "extraordinary" collaboration with the CIA, might have bent domestic surveillance and civil rights laws by sending undercover agents to monitor Muslim enclaves and mosque services, according to a months-long investigation by the Associated Press. Here's a look at the "astounding" NYPD "domestic CIA" operation:

What does the NYPD spy unit do?

Its goal is to gather and analyze intelligence about terrorist threats to New York. The unit has officers stationed in 11 foreign cities, and its operatives have been caught operating in New Jersey and Boston. Its most controversial initiatives, according to the AP, include the use of undercover officers (dubbed "rakers") to troll New York's Muslim neighborhoods looking for suspicious people and shops, and "mosque crawler" informants who report on what clerics are saying to their followers.

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Where does the CIA fit in?

The unit was set up, and is still headed, by David Cohen, a retired CIA officer. Cohen brought aboard CIA agent Larry Sanchez, who stayed on the agency payroll while training police agents from his NYPD office — an unusual arrangement that appears to have breached "the wall that's supposed to keep the CIA out of the domestic intelligence business," the AP says. Also "blurring the lines between police work and spying," the NYPD sent an officer to the CIA training farm to learn the agency's tradecraft, and a senior CIA operative is currently working undercover in the top ranks of the NYPD unit.

Did any of this raise eyebrows?

NYPD lawyers raised concerns about the "raking" operations, and the intelligence unit got embroiled in an ongoing civil-liberties lawsuit after Cohen's undercover agents infiltrated anti-war groups before the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. The FBI also has turf issues with Cohen's unit, and thinks it might be illegal. In fact, "senior FBI officials in New York ordered their own agents not to accept any reports from the NYPD's mosque crawlers," the AP says. But the authorities with oversight — the New York City Council and the federal government, which gives the unit millions in aid — have asked few questions.

Is any of this illegal?

Let's put it this way, says John Cook at Gawker: "When the FBI's lawyers are so concerned about your ethnic profiling that they won't rely on your reports, you know you're in trouble." Throw in CIA dabbling in domestic spying, and these operations are "probably illegal." The NYPD is evidently worried enough that it routinely shreds documents, says Adam Serwer at The American Prospect. But most of the unit's work doesn't "appear to violate the letter of the law," says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway. Still, "ethnic harassment" and spying on mosques and anti-war protesters is "not what the NYPD is supposed to be about."

Sources: AP, NPR, Gawker, American Prospect, Outside the Beltway

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