Halal Eateries, Barber Shops Watched in NYPD Ethnic Spying

Probe revealed a secret squad known as the Demographics Unit sent teams of undercover cops to help keep tabs on area's Muslim communities

By Adam Goldman, Eileen Sullivan and Matt Apuzzo
|  Thursday, Sep 22, 2011  |  Updated 5:28 PM EDT
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AP

In this photo taken Sept. 2, 2011, people walk past immigrant Arab businesses on Steinway Street in the Astoria neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York. The New York Police Department has subjected American citizens to surveillance and scrutiny, not because of any wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity. Documents obtained by The Associated Press describe a secret program known as the Moroccan Initiative, which catalogued where people of Moroccan ancestry shopped, ate and prayed. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

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The grainy photographs look like they could have come from any undercover police file: A man in jeans talking on his cell phone. Another in a windbreaker walking past patrons at a coffee shop. A car parked outside a grocery store.

But the photos were not part of a criminal case. They were snapped as part of secret New York Police Department intelligence program that singled out people and businesses based on their ethnicity.

Police documents obtained by The Associated Press show how the city's rich heritage as a place where immigrants can blend in and build their lives now clashes with today's New York, where police see blending in as one of the priorities for would-be terrorists. The documents describe in extraordinary detail an NYPD program to build a database of daily life, cataloguing where people ate, worked and prayed.

Read a selection of NYPD documents on the Moroccan Initiative.

It started with one group, Moroccans, but the documents show police intended to build intelligence files on other ethnicities.

Undercover officers photographed restaurants frequented by Moroccans, including one that was noted for serving "religious Muslims." Police documented where Moroccans bought groceries. While visiting an apartment used by new Moroccan immigrants, one officer noted in his reports that he saw two Qurans and a calendar from a nearby mosque.

"A lot of these locations were innocent," said an official involved in the effort, who, like many interviewed by the AP, spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive police operations. "They just happened to be in the community."

It was called the Moroccan Initiative.

The goal, officials said, was a database so complete that if police ever received a tip about a Moroccan terrorist, they would have the entire community at their fingertips.

Police monitored the path that generations of immigrants followed: getting an apartment, learning English, finding work, assimilating into the culture. Activities such as haircuts and gym workouts were transformed from mundane daily routines into police data points.

"In America, you don't put people under suspicion without good reason," said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., who has urged the Justice Department to investigate the NYPD. "The idea that people in a group are suspect because of being members of a group is profiling, plain and simple."

The AP previously revealed the NYPD intelligence unit's efforts to map the Muslim community, monitor ethnic neighborhoods and scrutinize mosques. The Moroccan Initiative was one of the division's projects.

Such programs began with help from the CIA under President George W. Bush and have continued with at least the tacit support of President Barack Obama, whose administration repeatedly has sidestepped questions about them. It is unclear whether Mayor Michael Bloomberg oversaw the programs.

Asked about the story Thursday, Bloomberg said, "You're just factually wrong," but he did not elaborate. His spokesman, after being shown the documents, also declined to say what the mayor believed was inaccurate.

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne did not return messages seeking comment about the Moroccan Initiative. In an earlier email, he said police weren't involved in wholesale spying but rather tried to document the likely whereabouts of terrorists.

"The unit's personnel would try to establish, for example, what border crossing a terrorist entering New York would use, what flop house he'd use, what Internet cafe he'd frequent to communicate, etc.," he wrote.

Current and former officials said the program started in response to the 2003 bombings that killed 45 people in Casablanca and the 2004 train bombing in Madrid that was linked to Moroccan terrorists.

Police were told there was no specific threat to New York from Moroccans, officials said, but they were instructed to gather intelligence because of concerns Moroccan terrorists might strike here, too.

NYPD intelligence chief David Cohen, a former senior CIA officer, oversaw the program, current and former officials said. Many of the documents obtained by the AP were prepared for Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, but it's unclear whether he saw them.

New York City law prohibits police from using race, religion or ethnicity as "the determinative factor" for any law enforcement action. Civil liberties advocates have said that guide is so ambiguous it makes the law unenforceable. The NYPD has said intelligence officers do not use racial profiling or trawl ethnic neighborhoods.

The documents, many of which were marked "secret," include a list of "Moroccan Locations," with photos and notes from plainclothes officers, known as rakers, who quietly kept tabs on ethnic neighborhoods and eavesdropped on conversations.

"The majority of the customers are religious Muslims," a report on a local sandwich shop said.

Some business owners in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens were frustrated and angry about being included in police documents.

"All I want is the best for my daughter and my community and to be treated like a new American citizen," said Sanaa Bergha, whose travel agency was among the businesses photographed.

The documents on the Moroccan businesses were compiled by a team called the Demographics Unit.

Browne, the department's spokesman, has said the unit only followed leads. There is no indication in the documents, however, that police were only investigating criminal leads. Police were told to canvass the city for Moroccan businesses. Information about crimes was included in the files, but these do not appear to be the program's focus.

One police document, for example, lists taxi companies and Dunkin' Donuts and Subway franchises known to hire Moroccans and other Arabs. A gym and barber shop also are mentioned. The end of the document includes a section about criminal activity and identifies four businesses believed to be involved in marriage and document fraud and drug dealing.

Another document describes 14 restaurants, two travel agencies and a meat market catering to the Moroccan community. Another says the NYPD produced a list of every Moroccan cab driver in the city.

When a Moroccan was arrested, according to the documents, police visited him in jail or at home. Each was asked how someone coming to the United States from Morocco might keep a low profile. Officers had a list of 13 questions, including where such a person might live, obtain identification cards, eat, worship and learn English.

The questions helped police identify Brooklyn apartments where Moroccans shared rooms soon after arriving in New York. Police visited one apartment in 2007 to meet someone who had been arrested the prior year, according to the files. The officer noted the apartment layout, the furnishings and a wall calendar from a nearby mosque.

"There were two Korans," the document said.

Police officials said such note-taking was the result of enormous pressure inside the department. Officers assigned to conduct interviews were told by supervisors that, if their subjects one day turned violent, the reports would be scrutinized with an eye for what warning signs were missed, officials said.

It was intended to keep officers sharp and remind them of the seriousness of the job, but officials said it also encouraged officers to record even innocent details.

Because of lawsuits by civil liberties groups, police lawyers have set stricter limits in recent years about information the NYPD compiles about people not accused of any crime, current and former officials said. Lawyers review police reports and sometimes require officers to remove information or rewrite their reports. Some information on innocent behavior is removed. Other information is labeled "sealed," which means it can be seen only by very senior officials, the officials said.

Meanwhile, police received from the U.S. government regular updates on foreign visitors to New York, according to documents and interviews. Police departments often receive information on visitors on a case-by-case basis. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which maintains the documents, declined to tell the AP whether such broad access by a police department was unusual.

Using the documents, police located and interviewed Moroccans and, when possible, the families they were visiting. Often, that would take them to the homes of U.S. citizens.

Police couldn't force people to talk to them or let them inside their homes, so officers often used a cover story about a crime in the neighborhood or a report of a missing child nearby, officials said.

During such interviews, the officer would note the surroundings: What was on TV? How many people lived there? If possible, police would collect names, phone numbers and occupations.

All this underscores the NYPD's transformation from a police department solving murders and muggings to one that also acts as a domestic intelligence agency. It's a transformation that Kelly, the police commissioner, makes no apologies for. He has credited intelligence efforts with thwarting terrorist attacks, and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan has called those efforts heroic.

At a barber shop in Queens, Amine Darhbach said he agrees police should keep the city safe. But he also said that, as an American citizen, he feels his business shouldn't be listed in police files just for serving Moroccan customers. Still, like many of his neighbors who grew up under the oppressive police forces of the Middle East and North Africa, he said things could be worse.

"In Morocco," he said, "police just come and take you away."

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