DEARBORN — Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Adam Goldman discussed, at the University of Michigan-Dearborn (UMD), on Tuesday, Oct. 22, the New York Police Department’s secret surveillance program of the Muslim community.
After Sept. 11, 2001, the intelligence division of the NYPD scrutinized the Muslim community in New York and surrounding cities, by spying on Islamic houses of worship, Muslim student organizations and places frequented by Muslims, according to Goldman, who wrote a series of stories on the program for the Associated Press.
Goldman said that when he was covering national security with his colleague, Matt Apuzzo, for the AP in 2010, they began hearing unfamiliar terms, like “mosque crawlers” and “demographics unit.” After further investigation, the reporters discovered that the NYPD was “mapping out the human terrain of the Muslim community” and gathering secret police files on the social and religious gatherings of Muslims.
“They sent police detectives to cafes and restaurants that Muslims frequent to figure out the owners and clients of those businesses,” Goldman said.
Goldman added that when the AP first published the story about spying on Muslims, the NYPD and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg denied the report and labeled it as “fiction.”
“We were on the defensive,” said Goldman. “Then people started leaking documents to us.”
He added that these documents proved the existence of the “demographics unit,” whose objective is to “identify and map ethnic residential concentrations within the tri-state area and identify and map ethnic hot spots.”
The reporter said the NYPD sent informants, known as “mosque crawlers,” to the City’s 250 mosques, tape recorded imams’ sermons and flagged 53 mosques as “mosques of concern.”
“They wrote analytical reports on mosques, designating them as terrorism enterprise organizations,” explain Goldman. “But they never charged any mosque with anything related to terrorism.”
He added that the department was “obsessed” with Muslim student associations, designating seven of them as organizations “of concern.”
“The public did not really care when we first started publishing the stories, but when we showed the unit was spying on schools, like Yale and Columbia, people started paying attention,” he said.
Goldman said the NYPD wanted to know the sentiments and views of Muslims on current events.
“They would send informants to mosques and hookah lounges after drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and if people were just discussing what happened, they would be red-flagged,” he said.
According to Goldman, Muslims were being “red-flagged” for discussing politics, changing their names, or even speaking Urdu, the native language of thousands of immigrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Although the airplane crash of baseball player Cory Lidle into a building in New York City in 2006 was ruled an accident, Goldman said, the NYPD sent informants to mosques to know what imams were saying about the crash.
“Imams were saying, ‘Thank God it’s not terrorism,'” he added. “But the sermons still went into secret police files.”
He said the department pressured Muslims, who get in trouble with the law, to become informants.
“If you get in trouble, they would squeeze you to work for them,” he said.
The reporter gave an example of an 18-year-old Muslim, who was caught in possession of marijuana and later pushed into becoming an informant.
“He went around taking pictures of Muslims at restaurants on his phone; it was meaningless,” said Goldman.
Goldman said the NYPD surveillance did not generate a single terrorism lead and totally missed real terrorism suspects, like Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-American from Aurora, Colorado, who came close to blowing up a New York City subway in 2009.
Zazi had gone to Pakistan to participate in the insurgency against American troops in Afghanistan, but al-Qaeda operatives convinced him, along with two others, to carry out a suicide attack in New York City.
“The NYPD missed these guys on every level,” Goldman said.
Last month, Goldman and Appuzo published “The Enemy Within,” a book that exposes NYPD surveillance and narrates the investigation that led to Zazi’s arrest.
Goldman and Appuzo share the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, a George Polk Award, the Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award and the Edgar A. Poe Award from the White House Correspondents’ Association, for their reporting on national security.
Goldman said the NYPD “demographics unit” is similar to other divisions in the department that targeted ethnic minorities and civil rights leaders in the past.
“In the 60’s they had the ‘ghetto informant program’ that targeted African Americans to see if they had any association to the Black Panthers,” he explained.
Goldman said the NYPD surveillance program started in cooperation with the CIA, which hired a senior covert officer in the City’s police department. However, after the story was exposed, the cooperation was brought to an end, at least publicly.
The AP stories, however, did not put an end to the program.
Goldman said that Ray Kelly, the commissioner of the NYPD, “bragged” that nothing has changed. The “demographics unit” has become the Zone Assessment Unit.
The reporter, who recently landed a job with the Washington Post, added that the NYPD receives $1.6 billion in federal funding for anti-terrorism programs each year, of which $60 million goes to the “demographics unit.”
Goldman said the program was challenged by three lawsuits, including one by the ACLU, but plaintiffs against the NYPD had to show harm by the program, which is hard to prove in a court of law.
He suspected that similar programs could be taking place in other parts of the country, but the decline of investigative journalism has had a “tremendous impact” on keeping secret government activities in the dark.
Goldman’s presentation at UMD was organized by the Arab Student Union, the Political Science Association, the Center for Arab American Studies and the Student Organization Advisory Council.
Dawud Walid, the executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Michigan (CAIR-MI), said the NYPD’s behavior is “very disturbing.”
“It is especially disturbing that the NYPD operated in other states. What we’re concerned about is that local police departments could get federal funding to ethnically map Arab and Muslim communities in southeast Michigan,” said Walid. “Journalists could play a role and send a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to the local departments and see what could be found. But we know the authorities do not give this information for free, and sometimes we have to sue for it.”
“I was once the president of the Muslim Student Association here at the University,” said community activist Rashid Beydoun. “It is ironic to see that, instead of combating crime, a police department is going after student organizations, whose goals are to promote tolerance and build bridges between communities.”
Beydoun expressed his gratitude to the organizers of the event, which he described as “intriguing.” He specifically thanked Dr. Sally Howell, a UMD Middle Eastern studies professor, who helped organize the event.
“Her dedication to the cause should be applauded,” he said.