EnemiesWithin3D

 

By Jared Malsin

Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit and bin Laden’s Final Plot Against America
Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman (Touchstone, September 3, 2013)

 

Stand in awe of Associated Press journalists Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman’s feats of reporting. The pair won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for a series based on leaked documents exposing the New York Police Department’s secret spying program targeting the city’s Muslim communities. The DOJ seized AP phone records over the duo’s report on how the CIA’s foiled an al-Qaeda plot in Yemen.  Their new book, Enemies Within, released in September, combines stark revelations about an abusive government program with an engrossing narration of law enforcement’s race to stop an al-Qaeda recruit’s plot to attack the New York City subway in September 2009. But the book’s most salient contribution is its insight into the larger set of controversies defining the new American security state: drones, detention, global surveillance, and domestic spying.

 

The revelations about the NYPD’s approach to counterterrorism are startling on their own. In 2002 police commissioner Ray Kelly, appointed by newly-elected Mayor Michael Bloomberg, substantially expanded the department’s intelligence arm. Apuzzo and Goldman remind us that Kelly, in his first stint as commissioner in the 1990s, under Mayor David Dinkins, was derided as soft on crime for his championing of community policing. In his new term, Kelly brought in a former CIA official, David Cohen, to spearhead efforts to build a true intelligence operation inside the NYPD.

 

In the security-conscious years following 9/11, Cohen vastly expanded the department’s surveillance operations, seeking to remake the department “in the CIA’s image.” But instead of only pursuing investigations into specific terrorist plots, he cast a net over the city’s entire Muslim population, sending informants, dubbed “rakers” and “Mosque crawlers” into practically every Mosque and Muslim-owned business in the metro area, collecting data on Muslim residents’ political and religious views. Agents from the department’s “Demographics Unit” photographed wedding guests, secretly recorded sermons, and infiltrated student groups across the northeast. The program, which continued even after AP revealed its existence, amounted to the systematic monitoring of an entire religious group.

 

Police officials and Mayor Bloomberg have defended the department’s actions by claiming success in combatting terrorism (though at first the department’s spokesman, Paul Browne, denied the existence of the program, lying outright to Apuzzo and Goldman). After all, the program’s defenders say, New York has not suffered a deadly attack since 9/11. Apuzzo and Goldman point out that this is a fallacy: post hoc, ergo propter hoc, “after this, therefore because of this.” The two reporters show that there is little evidence to connect the absence of successful attacks since 2001 with the NYPD’s indiscriminate spying on Muslims.

 

In the book, a former NYPD officer who once headed the Demographics Unit says the spying program did not generate or follow leads, instead compiling files on innocent Muslims simply because of their religious affiliation. The same official, after reviewing his detectives’ receipts, realized that some of the agents gravitated to the same businesses multiple times because they served the best food.It was unprecedented for a police department to spy on houses of worship and keep files on residents’ political and religious views. As an approach to counterterrorism, Apuzzo and Goldman say, it was also ineffective.

 

If anything, the book suggests, the NYPD Intelligence Division’s approach actually hindered law enforcement when the stakes were the highest. The rationale of the Demographics Unit was to spot the next Mohamed Atta before he became an attacker. But in 2009, when a young Afghan-American named Najibullah Zazi drove from Colorado to New York with a container of home-brewed explosives in the trunk of a rental car, the NYPD surveillance, even though they had spied on Zazi old neighborhood in Queens, had failed to notice Zazi or detect the bomb plot. With federal agents closely pursuing Zazi, Apuzzo and Goldman recount, a ham-handed move by the NYPD threatened to wreck the entire case.

 

Though it focuses on the NYPD and the tensions between the department and the FBI (FBI officials were deeply skeptical of Cohen’s department, even refusing to accept files generated by NYPD detectives), Enemies Within is really an assessment of the complexities of US counterterrorism writ large. In Apuzzo and Goldman’s treatment, the NYPD intelligence brass comes across as a crew of zealots and bunglers. By contrast, the FBI officials profiled in the book appear as dedicated investigators. The book does note, in passing the FBI’s own uneasy relationship with American Muslims and the moments when its own methods tested constitutional limits. However, Apuzzo and Goldman tell us, when the NYPD was compiling files on thousands of innocent Muslims, and the CIA was rendering suspects to secret prisons,  the FBI held fast to the old-fashioned method of following leads, building cases, and ultimately convicting criminals in civilian courts.  Though there is evidence that this portrayal is far from the complete story. Muslim New Yorkers questioned by the FBI have reported similar treatment to that delivered by the NYPD.

 

The conflict between the FBI and the NYPD’s approaches defines the book’s overarching narrative. But two other controversial programs—the CIA’s drone killings and the NSA’s global surveillance—also enter the story at pivotal moments. It was an NSA intercept of an email Zazi sent to his alQaeda contact in Pakistan that initially tipped US authorities that he might be planning an attack. When whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the NSA’s sweeping collection of phone records and warrantless email surveillance, the Obama administration pointed to the Zazi case in its defense of those programs. However, in their reporting for AP, Goldman and Apuzzo established that while Zazi’s email was intercepted under one of those programs, neither program was necessary to make the intercept.

 

Drones make an even more ominous cameo in the Zazi saga. Apuzzo and Goldman report in their book that, while training with alQaeda, Zazi and his two companions initially resisted their handlers’ urging of them to become suicide bombers. What ultimately changed their minds? Drone attacks. “Everywhere they looked, unmanned warplanes patrolled the skies,” Goldman and Apuzzo write. “That was the issue that finally broke their resolve.”[1]

 

Devastating as the book is in its indictment of the NYPD’s spy program, it is also cautious. The authors are charitable to the police, taking the time to explain the rationale for NYPD’s approach to counterterrorism. They emphasize the criticism that the NYPD’s programs are counterproductive in the fight against terrorism. However the book does not develop a robust picture of what is perhaps the most devastating consequence of the NYPD’s surveillance programs: the climate of fear and suspicion among New York’s Muslim communities. As researchers from the CUNY School of Law documented in a recent report, police surveillance causes New York Muslims to be suspicious of one another, to silence their own legitimate free speech and activism, to attempt to avoid appearing Muslim. In both the legal and the moral sense, these effects are chilling.

 

Enemies Within is nevertheless an important contribution to two interlocking groups of debates. The first set of debates has to do with how New York City approaches policing, a question that should be of central importance as the city appears set to elect Bill de Blasio as its first left-leaning mayor in years. The second, larger group of debates is related to the larger set of controversial American counterterrorism programs: Not only surveillance but torture, rendition, and assassination. Goldman and Apuzzo’s approach is unflinching. Their approach acknowledges that real security threats do exist. It also exposes the danger posed by the zeal of our own protectors.

 


[1] Enemies Within 114

 

Jared Malsin is a journalist based in Cairo. He has contributed to TIME, VICE, The New Republic, Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. He tweets at @jmalsin.