by Tracy R. Walsh
New York magazine has a lengthy excerpt from Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman’s forthcoming book about the NYPD’s post-9/11 surveillance program, and their account manages to be both harrowing and absurd. One example, of many:
Nobody trained the rakers [undercover officers] on what exactly qualified as suspicious, so they reported anything they heard. One Muslim man made it into files even though he praised President Bush’s State of the Union address and said people who criticized the U.S. government didn’t realize how good they had it.
Even the FBI recognized the problems with the program:
Confirmation that the activities of the Demographics Unit went far beyond what federal agencies were permitted to do was provided by the FBI itself. Once, Sanchez tried to peddle the Demographics reports to the FBI. But when Bureau lawyers in New York learned about the reports, they refused. The Demographics detectives, the FBI concluded, were effectively acting as undercover officers, targeting businesses without cause and collecting information related to politics and religion. Accepting the NYPD’s reports would violate FBI rules.
The full story contains a lot more objectionable behavior, and after reading how the undercover officers operate it’s easy to understand why the unit would cause Muslim-American mosque attendees, small-business owners and patrons, and students throughout the city to grow paranoid in their daily lives. And defenders of the program are unable to point to even a single case where it prevented a terrorist attack – in fact, they can’t even point to a terrorism-related arrest or prosecution.
Usually, when I write phrases like, “This is how a secret police force with files on innocent Americans starts,” I’m issuing a warning about the future. But the NYPD literally started a secret police unit that began indiscriminately keeping files on innocent Americans. This isn’t a warning about a slippery slope. It is an observation about ongoing abuse of civil liberties in America’s biggest city.