NEW YORK -- For several weeks, the Associated Press has reported extensively on the New York Police Department’s secret surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods, including a lengthy report Thursday about an initiative specifically targeting Moroccans where they eat, shop and pray.
New York’s top tabloids, however, aren't applauding the AP’s dogged reporting in the face of early denials from the police department. Instead, they've given support to the NYPD's just-revealed methods for monitoring Muslims.
“The Associated Press has added, unintentionally, to its flattering profile of the NYPD’s anti-terror squad with a report on how a first-rate intelligence unit does business,” the Daily News editorial board wrote Friday.
The editors argued that "to AP's intrepid, if not obsessed, reporters, these basic and benign measures are a scandal." However, the editors continued, “they just don't get it, and, with the exception of the most knee-jerk civil liberties activists, they are essentially alone in not getting that the NYPD is valuably scoping out the who, what and where of neighborhoods by observing little more than activities in public view.”
The Daily News’ mockery of the AP was a bit kinder than the New York Post’s recent editorial suggesting the news organization “take a long walk off a short pier.”
“What the AP and [New York Civil Liberties Union] forget is that the world -- and, critically, the law itself -- changed after 9/11. New Yorkers understand that counterterror folks need to be aggressive about pre-empting attacks to protect them,” the Sept. 8 editorial read. “Survival comes first.”
Contrary to the editorial boards' suggestions, AP investigative reporter Matt Apuzzo says he and his colleagues are simply reporting and not advocating for any side in the civil liberties debate.
“From the beginning, our view on this was always that we should let people know what’s going on in our nation’s largest city, and we should let people know how 9/11 has changed our nation’s biggest police force,” Apuzzo told The Huffington Post.
Apuzzo and investigative reporter Adam Goldman have been chipping away at the NYPD spying story for about eight months, while also getting pulled away for breaking news like the killing of Osama bin Laden. (The two wrote a much-discussed piece describing -- but not revealing by name -- the CIA analyst who'd long hunted bin Laden).
On Aug. 24, Apuzzo and Goldman broke open the NYPD spying story: the NYPD, in cooperation with the CIA, ran a post-9/11 spying operation targeting Muslims that would “run afoul of civil liberties rules if practiced by the federal government." The CIA can't legally spy on U.S. citizens, but they appeared to help the NYPD do just that. NYPD officers, even without specific leads involving criminal activity, have collected information on people inside restaurants serving halal meat, Muslim student associations, Islamic schools, ethnic bookstores, hookah bars and mosques.
"Mapping crimes has been a successful police strategy nationwide," the AP wrote. "But mapping robberies and shootings is one thing. Mapping ethnic neighborhoods is different, something that at least brushes against what the federal government considers racial profiling."
The AP described how the NYPD has operated with little local or federal oversight, despite having received over $1.6 billion from the federal government since the 9/11 attacks. Basing its investigation on, in AP's words, "documents and interviews with more than 40 current and former New York Police Department and federal officials,” the AP presented substantial evidence beginning with the first report. Still, the NYPD originally claimed the department’s “Demographic Unit” didn’t exist.
A week later, the AP followed up with more revelations and published documents showing that the NYPD kept a list of “ancestries of interest" -- immigrants from 28 countries and “American Black Muslims.” (For the Moroccan story, written by Apuzzo, Goldman and Eileen Sullivan, the AP again reinforced their reporting with primary documents).
Given the federal money and CIA relationship, Apuzzo considers the NYPD investigation a “national story” and explained why it was run out of the Washington bureau rather than New York.
“Terrorism and national security issues are among the missions of the Washington investigative team, and we have been given the luxuries of more time and resources for long-term projects like this,” Apuzzo said. “And of course, it can be good to bring some outside perspective into a complicated issue."
In recent weeks, New York City's papers haven’t seemed too interested in the AP investigation getting more attention online and on cable. (Apuzzo appeared recently on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" and Current's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann"). The Daily News quickly confirmed the existence of the Demographics Unit after the first AP piece and noted the most recent one, but hasn’t given the subject ample attention. The New York Times, which has done past NYPD investigations, hasn't jumped on the new revelations.
“They haven’t followed up at all,” said Len Levitt, a former police beat columnist for Newsday and author of the book, "NYPD Confidential." “To me, it’s astounding.”
The NYPD defends how it tries protecting New Yorkers from a terrorist attack. And Levitt acknowledges that if you talk to the average New Yorker about stopping a future terrorist attack, they’re likely to “want the NYPD to be doing everything they’re doing, legal or not legal." So even though "the NYPD is probably breaking the law," he said, "nobody cares."
Levitt, who also blogs on The Huffington Post, said he’s most surprised by The New York Times. While the Times Washington-based reporter Mark Mazetti covered the CIA's inquiry into whether any laws were broken through its cooperation with the NYPD, the paper hasn't followed up locally. When reached, metro editor Carolyn Ryan declined to discuss publicly the paper's coverage plans.
Apuzzo said he expected the series to spark strong opinions on both sides given that the signature issue in America post-9/11 is “how do we keep our nation safe and protect civil liberties.” So he's not surprised by the editorials.
And the AP is continuing its investigation. But even if the AP doesn't soon come out with another piece, the NYPD's counter-terror tactics may still get plenty of attention in the coming days. CBS's "60 Minutes" returns Sunday with a lead story on the police department's methods and an interview with Commissioner Ray Kelly.
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