In a new book published this month, award-winning AP reporting team Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman lay out in the most complete detail yet how the NYPD created programs to infiltrate and surveil Muslim communities, mosques, student groups and political organizations following 9/11. Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit and bin Laden’s Final Plot Against America, tells the story of Najibullah Zazi, a young Afghan-American man who attended high school in Flushing, Queens, turned against the war in Afghanistan, traveled to Pakistan to fight Americans, and ended up training with infamous senior al-Qaeda figures. As the book opens, he’s speeding from Denver to New York City, mere days away from carrying out a suicide bombing operation.
At the same time, the authors lay out how the NYPD brought in David Cohen, a career CIA analyst and once the nation’s top spy, to create and oversee an experiment in domestic intelligence gathering without parallel, based on religious affiliation and national identity. In the world of post-9/11 NYPD Intel, if you were Muslim or Middle Eastern, you were fair game for surveillance. Yet despite all of the information gathered by the NYPD, they completely missed Zazi.
Apuzzo and Goldman spoke to Rolling Stone over the phone a few days before their book came out. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity; hear the full conversation here.
One of the most startling revelations in the book is “terrorism enterprise investigation” (TEI) classification, which allows for an entire mosque to be investigated as a terrorist organization. You quote a former NYPD official who actually says, “a mosque is different than a church or temple.” What was the thinking behind this policy?
GOLDMAN: One instance was the Tablighi Jamaat. They’re actually a peace group, but they proselytize, and some bad guys had floated through them. But the group itself isn’t a terrorist group, or known to be controlled by al Qaeda or any other terrorist group. Because some guys like John Walker Lindh [who became known as the “American Taliban”] or Richard Reid [the “shoe bomber”] had been converted by the Tablighi Jamaat and then gone on to fall into the hands of al Qaeda or the Taliban, the NYPD asserted that, well, it’s guilt by association. Because they had floated through this group of millions and millions of people – thus the whole group was suspect. And that gave them, they say, the justification to go after that.
This was a device that David Cohen and NYPD Intel used as a legal tool to spy on the mosques. If they designated a mosque a TEI, they could send in undercovers, they could send in informants, they could use secret recording devices. This was just a pipeline for Cohen and his guys to understand what was happening in the mosque – it was pure intelligence-gathering activities. One of the extraordinary things we learned as we reported this out was that they never made a terrorism enterprise case. Not one. They had more than 50 TEIs into groups, into mosques, and they never made a terrorism enterprise case once.
That’s a theme that runs throughout the book, a seeming total lack of interest in making cases.
GOLDMAN: Yeah, and we’ve said this before. You took someone from the CIA and put them in charge of this division in this municipal police department – the CIA doesn’t make cases. In fact, the last thing the CIA wants to do is make cases. The CIA is an intelligence agency, they gather intelligence overseas. The idea of making a case is anathema to them, because they don’t want their sources or methods revealed in court. The saying at Intel was “we don’t make cases, we make overtime.”
The book also notes the lack of outside oversight of the NYPD. Do you see this as a case study for what can go wrong with other controversial counterterrorism programs that lack oversight?
APUZZO: It’s less about what can go wrong. It’s about what we’ve allowed, and what we’ve legalized, and what we’ve institutionalized in the decade since 9/11. We have institutionalized a drone program where the oversight is almost completely internalized. At the NYPD, a judge doesn’t need to sign off on opening up an investigation into a mosque as a terrorism organization. The oversight is internal. And one of the things we keep coming back to, and we mention this in the epilogue, after the underwear bomber in 2009, there was a lot of soul searching, a lot of external review. Congress got involved, the White House said they were going to do a review asking, “How did this guy slip through our defenses?” Zazi didn’t trigger that kind of review at the NYPD. Nobody at the city counsel said, “You guys have had a demographics unit, you have all these TEIs, you have all these informants, we’re spending all this money. How did you guys miss Zazi, right under your nose?” Nobody said that. And it’s because all of the programs are designed to be secret.
GOLDMAN: I mean, we’re having these same conversations about the NSA and Snowden. You’re seeing that play out in a vigorous way on a national scale.
What were the biggest surprises you found over the course of reporting this book?
APUZZO: I’ll tell you, the real surprise moment for me was when Chris Hawley, who reported this series with us, did a really nice story based on some documents we’d gotten about infiltration at CUNY, Community College of New York, Queens College, about how they were infiltrating the student groups. It got, like, zero attention in New York City. And then weeks, or a month later, we got ahold of some documents that showed that every day, the NYPD was monitoring the websites of Ivy League institutions like Columbia and Yale. And once it became the Ivies and it was outside of working class New York City – oh my god, suddenly everybody’s outraged, suddenly this is something we’re all going to talk about. Even though monitoring the websites is much less invasive, much less controversial, and on much stronger legal footing, than the actual infiltration of these student groups.
It really served as a reminder that while a lot of this is about religion, in the end there’s a lot of class issues here too. The New York Muslim community, to the extent that there’s an overarching, umbrella community, really still is in its infancy in terms of its wielding any political power relative to its numbers. Muslim Americans in general tend to be an underrepresented political group.
GOLDMAN: Though, in the wake of our stories, they have started to organize politically, and you can see that and you can see that playing out in the media. [New York mayoral candidates Christine Quinn and Bill de Blasio] are talking about specific stories. Quinn wouldn’t talk about it for two years.
APUZZO: It’s been really interesting how Eric Holder and Barack Obama have tried to stay a million miles away from this, given their interest in talking about civil rights. Part of that, obviously, is because White House grants help pay for the surveillance.
We won an award from the White House Correspondents Association, and so you get to sort of walk across the stage and shake the president’s hand. So when I crossed, I stopped and I said, “Mr, President, we’ve had a really difficult time getting anybody at the White House to talk about these stories. And I’d love it if you guys would talk a little about where you come down on the issue of Muslim surveillance in New York City, since I know civil rights are such an important issue for you.” And he sort of, like, put his hand on my shoulder, and continues to shake my hand as he’s guiding me off the stage, and he says something like, “You think I’ve got any juice up there?” And that’s the last we heard from him. [Laughing]
Do you think that New York’s recently passed Community Safety Act, or Judge Shira Scheindlin’s ruling against the NYPD in the stop and frisk trial, will have an effect on whether these kinds of programs continue?
GOLDMAN: There are parallels with that trial, because Scheindlin said the NYPD violated the 14th Amendment, the equal protection clause. She said they were racial profiling. This is the same police department that’s involved in Muslim spying. The ACLU, along with two other groups, sued, saying, “Hey, you violated their 14th Amendment rights.” So what the judge said the NYPD did violate in the stop and frisk case is now at issue in this other case [about Muslim spying].
APUZZO: The NYPD talks a lot about how this is all legal, and that’s just never been an issue for us. The reason being: They said waterboarding was legal. Nobody is going to jail for waterboarding. We see what’s going on at the NYPD as the same sort of thing. It’s a tactic that came from 9/11 that we would not have allowed pre-9/11, that we do allow now. And the fact that it is legal is more about where we’ve come as a country. We’re a country that allowed waterboarding and indefinite detention, and we’re a country where the NYPD Intelligence Division has police files on what Muslims think of the State of the Union address.
GOLDMAN: And Matt and I, as we reported this out, for these last couple years, we never asserted this was illegal. Not once. Matt and I, we’re not prosecutors.