Domestic Surveillance, NYPD Style

The Associated Press has an astounding story on the depth of a domestic surveillance effort conducted by the NYPD, and the possibility that it goes beyond the permissive FBI guidelines that have themselves drawn criticism from civil-liberties advocates. Freedom from the kind of oversight required at the federal level (think about that!), the NYPD, with its far more diverse roster, engaged in an expansive intelligence-gathering operation in local Muslim communities. The NYPD also had some assistance from the CIA in constructing the program, which is in and of itself disturbing since that agency is not legally allowed to spy on American citizens.

Cohen said he wanted the squad to "rake the coals, looking for hot spots," former officials recalled. The undercover officers soon became known inside the department as rakers.

A hot spot might be a beauty supply store selling chemicals used for making bombs. Or it might be a hawala, a broker that transfers money around the world with little documentation. Undercover officers might visit an Internet cafe and look at the browsing history on a computer, a former police official involved in the program said. If it revealed visits to radical websites, the cafe might be deemed a hot spot.

Ethnic bookstores, too, were on the list. If a raker noticed a customer looking at radical literature, he might chat up the store owner and see what he could learn. The bookstore, or even the customer, might get further scrutiny. If a restaurant patron applauds a news report about the death of U.S. troops, the patron or the restaurant could be labeled a hot spot.

The goal was to "map the city's human terrain," one law enforcement official said. The program was modeled in part on how Israeli authorities operate in the West Bank, a former police official said.

Mapping crimes has been a successful police strategy nationwide. But mapping robberies and shootings is one thing. Mapping ethnic neighborhoods is different, something that at least brushes against what the federal government considers racial profiling.

What's fascinating is that the FBI reportedly refused to accept information gathered through the "raking" program. Keep in mind that the FBI is already being sued for putting an informant inside a California mosque who was turned in by the very people he was sent to spy on. In response to the NYPD's raking, the FBI's spokesperson begins to sound like a card-carrying member of the ACLU:

"If you're sending an informant into a mosque when there is no evidence of wrongdoing, that's a very high-risk thing to do," Caproni said. "You're running right up against core constitutional rights. You're talking about freedom of religion."

As Mother Jones reported earlier this week, the FBI does have thousands of informants in Muslim communities -- and it's really far from clear where exactly the FBI runs up against what it believes is its own legal limits when it comes to domestic surveillance. Community mapping, conducting preliminary investigations of communities based in part on ethnic or religious background -- the FBI believes it has the authority to do those things. The California mosque case is a prime example of the FBI being "proactive" in investigations without prior hard evidence of criminal activity. Caproni says in the article that the FBI is not allowed to to send an informant into a mosque with no evidence of wrongdoing, but it's worth noting that the government has invoked the state-secrets privilege to dismiss the lawsuit alleging that the FBI did just that in California. 

I suspect some of the things the NYPD did really do go further than the FBI would go or has gone -- such as getting the licenses of all New York cab drivers of Pakistani descent -- but at first blush, it's hard to tell what the NYPD was doing that the FBI doesn't believe it's authorized to do. But as the story notes, the NYPD was worried enough about the possibility that they were doing something illegal that they shredded documents related to the program. 

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