From left to right, David Cohen, NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and former CIA agent; Mayor Michael Bloomberg; and NYPD chief Ray Kelly (Photo: EPA/ANDREW GOMBERT)
It’s official: the New York Police Department (NYPD) will have to defend its expansive spying program targeting Muslims in the Northeast. A lawsuit filed this week as part of a long-running civil liberties case claims that the NYPD has violated federal guidelines on how the police can monitor political activity and requests than an independent monitor be appointed to oversee the department’s efforts aimed at what they say are terrorists.
The civil rights lawyers who filed the suit are seeking a judge’s ruling that would acknowledge that the police have violated long-standing guidelines on surveillance. They are also seeking a court order that would prohibit the NYPD from investigating Muslims with no evidence of criminal activity and from keeping files on Muslims.
“The N.Y.P.D. is continuing a massive, all-encompassing dragnet for intelligence concerning anything connected with Muslim activity through intrusive infiltration and record-keeping about all aspects of life, politics and worship,” the lawyers said in court papers, according to the New York Times. “The N.Y.P.D. operates on a theory that conservative Muslim beliefs and participation in Muslim organizations are themselves bases for investigation.”
The lawyers also say that the NYPD has been wholly misleading about their operations. In court papers detailed by veteran police beat columnist Leonard Levitt, the lawyers go after police chief Ray Kelly’s remark that “undercover officers and confidential informants do not enter a mosque unless they are following up on a lead vetted under Handschu.” But Levitt points out that Kelly, who made the remark at Fordham Law School last March, was distorting the truth:
Kelly’s remarks seem belied by a secret Intelligence Division document, cited in the court papers, concerning the single-engine plane crash of Corey Lidle, a former New York Yankees baseball player, on October 11, 2006, and which was reported by NYPD Confidential on Mar. 5, 2012.
The documents reveal that, within 24 hours of the crash, the NYPD was searching for a terrorism link. By the following day, detectives from the NYPD’s Intelligence Division had contacted informants and undercover detectives in at least five mosques and Islamic Centers around the city and in New Jersey to gauge the reaction to Lidle’s crash.
“This exhibit illustrates the constant infiltration of religious organizations and meetings,” the court papers say.
“Here the NYPD is monitoring reaction to a plane crash already known not to involve terrorism or crime. The exhibit well characterizes the information collected as nothing but ‘general chatter, statements of regret and expressions of relief.’ For one member of a mosque, who ‘appears agitated’ the informant went so far as to promise a follow-up …”
Kelly’s remark references the Handschu case, which this current lawsuit is a part of. The Handschu case refers to a 1970s-era lawsuit filed against the NYPD due to its surveillance of political groups. The result of that lawsuit was to force the NYPD to adhere to guidelines stipulating that political activity can only be investigated if there was evidence of a specific crime. But after the September 11 attacks, the police successfully got a judge to relax the guidelines.
Now, the NYPD can surveil groups or people if they have a “reasonable” indication that criminal activity is taking place–a looser restriction than the previous one, which said that intelligence detectives needed “specific information” to investigate. Police agents can also attend public events if they are suspicious of terrorism-related activities, but cannot retain the information under the Handschu rules. And the post-9/11 guidelines also said that the police no longer had to notify an oversight panel when they were surveilling a group of people.
One of the Handschu lawyers, Jethro Eisenstein, explained to Levitt that “there is a history of NYPD behavior that goes back to the Black Hand squad at the turn of the century that was directed against Italians. The Black Hand squad became the Red Squad, which was directed against communists. The Red Squad became the Bureau of Special Services and Investigations [BOSSI], which was directed against the Black Panther Party. BOSSI is now the Intelligence Division, which is directed against Muslims.”
Despite the fact that the NYPD is operating under post-9/11 guidelines that are looser than the 1985 mandated rules that resulted from the Handschu case, lawyers say the police department is still breaking the rules. Specifically, the prohibition on retaining the information of people who are not suspected of any crime appears to have been ignored, as the Lidle-related case shows.
The case is one part of the response lawyers and activists have had to the NYPD’s surveillance operation. Since the September 11 attacks, and with the help of former and current CIA agents, the police department targeted Muslim communities and put them under surveillance. They mapped out Muslim neighborhoods, catalogued places of worship, eavesdropped on conversations and spied on activists and student groups. The language people spoke–like Urdu–was reason enough for the NYPD to spy on people. Additionally, the NYPD also justified eavesdropping on a Lebanese cafe, for example, because, if there were customers from South Lebanon, “that may be an indicator of possibility that that is a sympathizer to Hezbollah because Southern Lebanon is dominated by Hezbollah.”
All of those activities, first exposed by the Associated Press and Levitt, were carried out despite the lack of evidence of criminal activity taking place. And the operation has been wholly unsuccessful: in court testimony, the head of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division, Thomas Galati, admitted that the surveillance “never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation.” That admission undercut a key justification the NYPD has been using to defend its spy program.
The lawsuit in New York joins two other pending suits related to the NYPD spying operation. One lawsuit was filed by a group of New Jersey Muslims who claim the spying operation violated their constitutional rights; the other was filed by a government watchdog group that is seeking more information on the Central Intelligence Agency’s collaboration with the NYPD spy program.