By Paul Mutter
“With CIA help, NYPD moves covertly in Muslim areas,” reports the Associated Press, in an expose on the growing ties between the two agencies.
Well, not surprising, except that in this case, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) was conducting this operation a couple of public transit stops out of its jurisdiction in New Brunswick, NJ, the home of Rutgers University (my alma mater! – I wonder if I was put on the surveillance list as a “useful idiot” of the Islamists?). Rutgers, coincidentally, has a significant Muslim student body, as does the surrounding area.
The other surprising detail is that the CIA (and apparently, not the FBI, though they have their own like-minded programs) was helping the NYPD carry out this action – which, as AP reporter Adam Goldman notes, was only one part of a much larger domestic surveillance program the two agencies have been collaborating on – even though one is a federal intelligence agency charged with overseas intelligence gathering and the other is a metropolitan police department. Both are nominally under “civilian” control.
The CIA is generally prohibited by law from spying on American citizens – the idea behind this being that an intelligence agency with both domestic and foreign surveillance capacities (like the Stasi) would have a little too much totalitarian potential for the U.S.
Of course, theory and practice are two different things. The CIA has indeed conducted domestic operations against U.S. citizens over the years. Apparently, though, while it was pretty good at monitoring American journalists and congresspeople during the Cold War, some “hawks” hold that the “internal reforms” foisted upon the agency after Nixon’s resignation resulted in an organizational culture that, years on, failed to effectively monitor people entering the country in the years leading up to the 9/11 attacks. In other words, the story goes, while the CIA was at fault, the people who forced it to “reform” back in the 70s were the root problem. Hence, since 9/11, there have been calls within and without for the CIA to take a more active role in domestic affairs (and the CIA has done so).
Particularly telling is this passage from the AP:
“The New York Police Department is doing everything it can to make sure there’s not another 9/11 here and that more innocent New Yorkers are not killed by terrorists,” NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said. “And we have nothing to apologize for in that regard.”
But officials said they’ve also been careful to keep information about some programs out of court, where a judge might take a different view. The NYPD considers even basic details, such as the intelligence division’s organization chart, to be too sensitive to reveal in court.
Max Blumenthal, among others, has compared the NYPD tactics to Israeli police tactics in the West Bank, and so too did an unnamed NYPD source in the AP article. There is a well-established link between the two nations’ law enforcement apparatuses. I think a comparison could also be made with the tactics of the “Security Branch” of the South African Police (SAP) during apartheid operating in the “Bantustans,” since the white Afrikaner-dominated agency made extensive use of individuals who could “blend in” to conduct espionage, just as the NYPD is doing:
At the CIA, one of the biggest obstacles has always been that U.S. intelligence officials are overwhelmingly white, their mannerisms clearly American. The NYPD didn’t have that problem, thanks to its diverse pool of officers.
Using census data, the department matched undercover officers to ethnic communities and instructed them to blend in, the officials said. Pakistani-American officers infiltrated Pakistani neighborhoods, Palestinians focused on Palestinian neighborhoods. They hung out in hookah bars and cafes, quietly observing the community around them.
Continuing the South African analogy, the SAP was more or less trained to regard all “blacks” as potential criminals and terrorists. (Of his “Criminology and Ethnology” training, SAP Security Branch whistleblower Paul Erasmus said, “If that didn’t turn you into a racist then nothing on God’s earth would have”). The arguments that the SAP and NYPD put forth for their actions are also broadly similar: you go into the neighborhoods where the crimes are (or may be) happening, and that isn’t profiling. Except, well, it is. Especially when the training promotes a mentality that everyone in those areas is a potential criminal/terrorist.
The CIA-NYPD effort (the officers sent in were said to be part of a “Demographic Unit” or “Terrorism Interdiction Unit”) was helped along, according to the AP, when a law from the 1970s that limited the amount of espionage work the NYPD could conduct was struck down after 9/11. Interestingly, that law was focused on protecting anti-war protesters, and the NYPD-CIA program’s top brain trustee, David Cohen, is now in hot water for taking action to infiltrate informants into anti-war groups during the Bush Administration. “Cohen’s affidavit,” writes Christoper Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union, “dramatically and starkly illustrated the extent to which the NYPD was prepared to conflate political activity with terrorism.” Words that could be equally said of the SAP under apartheid, or the Israeli response to Palestinian political activism.
The CIA-NYPD actions, while indicative of the way Americans view Muslims (is a South African-inspired “Department of Muslim Affairs” next?), is also indicative of the increasingly incestuous relationships among the U.S.’s “intelligence” and “security” apparatuses. The comeback from those agencies: well, we haven’t had another 9/11 since 9/11, now have we? Or as another CIA hand at the NYPD put it in the AP article, “We’ve been given the public tolerance and the luxury to be very aggressive on this topic.”
I have long believed that being an American means that you regard possessing civil liberties is a trade-off for absolute security, and that having these liberties is worth living with fear and uncertainty because the alternative – the pursuit of the illusion of absolute security – is living with the omnipresent fear and uncertainty of the surveillance state. Of the police becoming terrorists, as an LAPD official told the AP.
Americans, though (or at least their elected officials), are increasingly willing to disregard that trade-off and bleat for the illusion of absolute security, even if it means sacrificing civil liberties.
But it isn’t just Americans that are responding to the threat of terrorism this way. NYPD. CIA. The Mishteret Yisrael. SAP. They all share the same wavelength. People wonder if it is possible for the U.S. to become a “surveillance state“; but if you are Muslim, you are not asking that question. You are living that reality.