Was it Justice or Politics that Killled the NYPD Muslim Spy Unit?

An NYPD unit tasked with spying on the city’s Muslims was publicly killed Tuesday, just days after a ruling that upheld its legal basis. So what gives?

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty

New York is the country’s largest city and one of its most progressive but since 2001 it’s also been at the forefront of some of the most aggressive and controversial anti-terrorism tactics. Yesterday, city officials announced the end of one of those major tactics: targeted spying on Muslim communities.

But there’s some strange timing going on here. For one thing, New York’s liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio was in favor of the surveillance program before he was against it. Then there's the fact that just days after the New York Times reported that Attorney General Eric Holder will sign off on new guidelines for the FBI that would allow it to continue using nationality to map and surveil neighborhoods, the NYPD program that had been assembling detailed files on Muslim neighborhoods is being publicly dismantled.

More on that in a bit, first some background on the program itself.

Officially, the spying was done under the auspices of the NYPD’s “Zone Assessment Unit.” Muslims in New York City saw their mosques, restaurants and, in some cases, student associations infiltrated by undercover NYPD officials and confidential informants who took notes on overheard conversations, television programs that were playing, nationality of store owners and customers, and anything else that NYPD officials thought gave them a flavor for what was happening in the city’s cloistered immigrant communities that catered to Muslims from the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe.

The Associated Press first reported on NYPD spying in 2011, in a series of articles that later were awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The series culminated in a 2013 book by those reporters, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, arguing that the labor-intensive and intrusive tactics were also not effective.

Justin Elliott at Pro Publica also questioned the NYPD’s claims that its anti-terrorism tactics helped ward off more than a dozen terrorist plots, as was claimed by police officials. Setting aside that debate, the politics of ending what critics called “muslim spying” weren’t as easy or palatable in New York City as observers might think. As Michael Powell noted in an unrelated television interview, New York City is progressive … as long as everything is functioning.

But the criticisms made of the spying program weren’t heeded by the Justice Department when it reviewed racial profiling rules for a similar FBI program that used ethnic mapping to focus intelligence and recruit informants. According to the Daily News, the Justice Department’s ruling, “should once and for all settle the debate about whether what’s been wrongly labeled “Muslim surveillance” should continue under Bill Bratton.” But the opposite has happened. Shortly after Holder's decision on the FBI, Bratton has discontinued a high profile unit in the NYPD's own surveillance program.

So, what gives? As usual in New York, this is about politics.

Bill de Blasio’s meteoric rise from fourth to first place in last year’s mayoral race was predicated on a few simple facts: addressing New York’s out of control income inequality (who doesn’t want someone richer than them to pay a little more?) and, electing someone as far away as possible from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who earned a lot of resentment from New Yorkers after extending term limits to stay in office.

De Blasio took office with a progressive mandate and promises to reform New York law enforcement policies and make them more responsive to minority concerns. But the public safety issue de Blasio focused on wasn’t Muslim spying. It was the controversial stop-and-frisk tactic. The reason was simple, stop-and-frisk was the high profile cause that grabbed headlines. Regular reporting on frisking was required under city law; professors had reams of data to study and analyze; and local lawmakers from majority-minority districts had countless constituents who were the victims of this policy. And in a Democratic primary, those constituents would make up a decisive number of votes.

The targets of Muslim spying had much less ammunition at their disposal. There was hardly any data to analyze — the surveillance programs were, by design, kept from public disclosure. Most information gleaned about the program came from leaks, primarily to Apuzzo and Goldman. Politically, Muslims were a fraction of the voting bloc in New York, and had no real recognizable spokesperson. The only Muslim elected official in New York City — Councilman Robert Jackson of Harlem — questioned the program, but hardly made a sustained effort to be seen as the face of its opposition.

De Blasio himself initially backed the NYPD as the first wave of Associated Press stories were published. In April 2013, de Blasio told me “I spent a lot of time with Commissioner Kelly reviewing the situation. I came to the conclusion that the NYPD had handled it in a legal and appropriate manner with the right checks and balances.” He also said he wanted to “constantly monitor” them to make sure “it was done right.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

By October, after more AP stories, de Blasio was standing in front of “Muslims for de Blasio,” and publicly distinguishing between his policies and Ray Kelly’s, telling reporters that spying would have to be based on “specific leads” and not done “on a wholesale basis.”

When de Blasio appointed Bill Bratton as the city’s police commissioner, he might as well have announced the end of Kellys’ surveillance program too.

After the AP stories first appeared in 2011, Kelly defended the program as necessary and accused the outlet of inaccuracies and biases and, later, ginning up stories to promote their forthcoming book. No corrections were ever run. The series won a Pulitzer Prize. (And, in an ironic twist, the Rupert Murdoch-owned TV operation bought the rights to the book, despite the vicious attacks it got on the editorial pages of a Rupert Murdoch-owned paper.)

Years earlier, Bratton had his own short-lived Muslim controversy but he handled it very differently than Kelly did. To observers, he began to look like the opposite of Ray Kelly.

In 2007, as police commissioner in Los Angeles, Bratton sent Michael Downing, the LAPD’s commanding officer for Counterterrorism and Special Operations, to testify at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing. Downing said, “We probably have over 700,000 American Muslims throughout the Los Angeles region but we don’t really know where they live, or what they do or how they’re structured” and “We have great outreach and we’ve got great relationships, but the idea here is to actually map out, to find out where the Pakistani Muslims live, the Somalians, the Chechnyans, the Jordanians.”

Sixteen days later, Bratton held a press conference to announce there would be no mapping.

He said “it would have required shared cooperation between the Department and members of the Muslim community” and, to the surprise of no one, that cooperation simply wasn't forthcoming. At the time, Bratton sought to ameliorate the tension between the LAPD and Muslims. At a private meeting, he assured them that the LAPD would be their partner, not their antagonist. According to one attendee, Bratton told them, “We will never do anything to the Muslim community, we will only do things with the Muslim community.”

Correction: This article has been updated after an earlier version mistakenly reported that a recent Justice Department ruling upheld the legality of operations conducted by the NYPD's “Zone Assessment Unit." Attorney General Holder's decision applied to the FBI, not the NYPD. He is drafting rules that restrict some surveillance tactics by the FBI but will still allow them to collect census and demographic data. He did not authorize them to use more intrusive tactics to monitor and record constitutionally protected freedom of speech, as an earlier draft of this story indicated.