Records detail mosque spying; NYPD defends tactics

By Matt Apuzzo

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 24 2012 1:21 p.m. MST

Booker and his police director accused the NYPD of misleading them by not revealing exactly what they were doing. Had they known, they said it never would have been permitted. But Browne said Newark police were told before and after the operation and knew exactly what it entailed.

Kelly, the police commissioner, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have been emphatic that police only follow legitimate leads of criminal activity and do not conduct preventive surveillance in ethnic communities.

Former and current law enforcement officials either involved in or with direct knowledge of these programs say they did not follow leads. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the secret programs. But the documents support their claims.

The effort highlights one of the most difficult aspects of policing in the age of terrorism. Solving crimes isn't enough; police are expected to identify would-be terrorists and move in before they can attack.

There are no universally agreed upon warning signs for terrorism. Terrorists have used Internet cafes, stayed in hostels, worked out at gyms, visited travel agencies, attended student groups and prayed at mosques. So the NYPD monitored those areas. In doing so, they monitored many innocent people as they went about their daily lives.

Using plainclothes officers from the squad known as the Demographics Unit, police swept Muslim neighborhoods and catalogued the location of mosques. The ethnic makeup of each congregation was logged as police fanned out across the city and outside their jurisdiction, into suburban Long Island and areas of New Jersey.

"African American, Arab, Pakistani," police wrote beneath the photo of one mosque in Newark.

Investigators looked at mosques as the center of Muslim life. All their connections had to be known.

David Cohen, the NYPD's top intelligence officer, wanted a source inside every mosque within a 250-mile radius of New York, current and former officials said. Though the officials said they never managed to reach that goal, documents show the NYPD successfully placed informants or undercovers — sometimes both — into mosques from Westchester County, N.Y., to New Jersey.

The NYPD used these sources to get a sense of the sentiment of worshippers whenever an event generated headlines. The goal, former officials said, was to alert police to potential problems before they bubbled up.

Even when it was clear there were no links to terrorism, the mosque informants gave the NYPD the ability to "take the pulse" of the community, as Cohen and other managers put it.

When New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor were killed on Oct. 11, 2006, when their small plane crashed into a Manhattan high-rise apartment, fighter planes were scrambled. Within hours the FBI and Homeland Security Department said it was an accident. Terrorism was ruled out.

Yet for days after the event, the NYPD's mosque crawlers reported to police about what they heard at sermons and among worshippers.

At the Brooklyn Islamic Center, a confidential informant "noted chatter among the regulars expressing relief and thanks to God that the crash was only an accident and not an act of terrorism," one report reads.

"The worshippers made remarks to the effect that 'it better be an accident; we don't need any more heat,'" an undercover officer reported from the Al-Tawheed Islamic Center in Jersey City, N.J.

In some instances, the NYPD put cameras on light poles and trained them on mosques, documents show. Because the cameras were in public space, police didn't need a warrant to conduct the surveillance.

Police also wrote down the license plates of cars in mosque parking lots, documents show. In some instances, police in unmarked cars outfitted with electronic license plate readers would drive down the street and record the plates of everyone parked near the mosque, former officials recalled.

"They're viewing Muslims like they're crazy. They're terrorists. They all must be fanatics," said Abdul Akbar Mohammed, the imam for the past eight years at the Masjid Imam Ali K. Muslim in Newark. "That's not right."

Associated Press writers Chris Hawley and Eileen Sullivan contributed to this report.

Online:

View the NYPD documents: www.ap.org/nypd

NYPD Informant summaries of Danish cartoons: http://apne.ws/zVwtCt

NYPD New Jersey mosque targeting: http://apne.ws/wsrSvN

NYPD Informant summaries of plane crash: http://apne.ws/xB9kVM

Contact the Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations (at) ap.org

Follow Apuzzo and Goldman at http://twitter.com/mattapuzzo and http://twitter.com/goldmandc

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