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NYPD Spies On Muslims, Stirs National Outcry

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The New York Police Department has been monitoring Muslim students in cities as far away as Philadelphia, Buffalo and Syracuse, the Associated Press reports. Americans question whether this is a privacy breach or a necessary safety measure. Host Michel Martin speaks with an AP investigative reporter and a member of the national Muslim Students Association.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

This is the month when we acknowledge the contributions of women in history and contemporary affairs. So, to celebrate, we decided to dig into biographies of notable women. We'll have our first conversation in a few minutes.

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But first, we want to turn to a controversy that has been big news in the New York Metropolitan area but has reverberated around the country. It involves the New York Police Department. The Associated Press reports that the NYPD has been monitoring Muslim college students in New York City and throughout the northeast. They report that the NYPD trawled websites and planted informants in chapters of the Muslim Students Association.

The NYPD says all their actions have been legal, but civil rights advocates disagree. And the Justice Department announced earlier this week that it is looking into the matter.

We wanted to know more about this, so we've called upon Matt Apuzzo. He is a reporter with the Associated Press' investigative team. For the last few months his team has been conducting an ongoing probe into NYPD's intelligence operations. Also with us is Zahir Latheef. He is the president of the National Muslim Students Association. Thank you both so much for joining us.

MATT APUZZO: Great to be here.

ZAHIR LATHEEF: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: And I do want to point out that we reached out several times to the NYPD and we asked them to either join our conversation or to provide a written statement. They have received our multiple requests but have not responded to them. So, Matt Apuzzo, let me start with you. I just wanted to ask, what got the team looking into this?

APUZZO: Well, my colleague Adam Goldman and I, we focus a great deal on national security and terrorism issues. And in the course of doing reporting on other stories, we begin to hear things about the NYPD and we begin to hear terms that we weren't familiar with. Mosque crawlers, rakers, those aren't terms that are sort of used in normal law enforcement circles. So, we started to nose around on it and what's unfolded has taken us across many, many months and a lot of discussions with a lot of people.

MARTIN: Give us some of the headlines of some of the things that you've reported. And I do want to point out, this is an extensive body of work. There have been a number of stories published by your team. So, if you could just give me like the top three findings.

APUZZO: Sure. I mean, what we found is that the NYPD has been building databases of all aspects of Muslim life. They catalogue where Muslims work, where they live, eat, sleep, pray, shop, where they get on the Internet, where they watch sports, everybody who changes their name in New York City - from a Muslim name to an American-sounding name or vice versa - is likely to be catalogued in police files and backgrounded. As we talked about the student groups...

MARTIN: Are they investigating Muslims in general or just Muslim students primarily?

APUZZO: It's Muslims in general. The student focus is just one part of this larger effort to really keep tabs on the entire Muslim population in and around New York City. And by around, I mean, we're talking about, you know, 100-mile, 200-mile radius of New York City.

MARTIN: What has been the NYPD's response to this when you have queried them about it, as I know you have?

APUZZO: Well, the NYPD says, you know, look, everything we're doing is legal, first of all. And the second thing they say is...

MARTIN: For example, any member of the public can go into a public house of worship. So, if any member of the public can go, they can go?

APUZZO: Right. And for instance, they have this secret team called the Demographics Unit, where plain-clothes officers will take photographs of mosques and Muslim businesses and go out and eavesdrop inside businesses and take notes about what they hear. And it's almost always innocuous stuff that gets reported back.

But the police department says this is legal, but it's also necessary because we need to know in advance where the different ethnic populations are, so that - let's say there's a legitimate terrorist threat from an Egyptian. Well, the NYPD can pull off their shelf where Egyptians live, shop, eat, pray, where they're likely to buy their halal meat, what mosque they're likely to go to, and then they can focus their efforts there. So, it's an effort to catalogue this data preventatively.

MARTIN: And what do the critics say? And the critics include the mayor of Newark, New Jersey Cory Booker.

APUZZO: Right. The mayor of Newark and the governor of New Jersey have been very critical of the NYPD for conducting these operations inside New Jersey. They say, look, this can't be a fishing expedition. You can't just put an entire community under surveillance and put these people in police file just for being there. And Mayor Booker and Governor Christie say, we didn't even know this was going on, which is something that they're very concerned about.

MARTIN: And just to clarify, are they picking places to place under surveillance because there has been an allegation of wrongdoing or because these particular institutions have been known to be a place where militants or people who have engaged in illegal conduct or who have tried to plan illegal conduct have been known to gather?

APUZZO: That's a great question, Michel. So, when we first started this series, the NYPD said, look, we only go where criminal leads take us. But these documents have shown that that's absolutely not the case. And the NYPD and the mayor have sort of amended that and said, look, we also go places where we're looking for leads. So, in many cases, in most cases, business and mosques that are photographed and infiltrated, the reports show no evidence of criminal activity whatsoever. They're just trying to know the terrain. They're just trying to know who's out there.

MARTIN: We're talking with Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press. An investigative team at the Associated Press has been documenting the New York Police Department's efforts to monitor Muslim communities in the northeast area.

We want to turn now to Zahir Latheef of the National Muslim Students Association. I want to mention that you are in Houston. This seems to be primarily centered in the northeast but the news of this, of course, has now gone national. And, Zahir, what has the reaction been among Muslim students in particular to this news?

LATHEEF: Well, I guess my personal reaction is - one of the first things that came to my mind is, where else is this going on. Are other local law enforcement agencies using the same strategy?

MARTIN: And I do want to mention once again that we've reached out to the NYPD several times to ask them if they wanted to send somebody or invite someone to join our conversation or to provide a written statement. They did not respond to any of our numerous requests, although we do know they received them. But this is what Mayor Michael Bloomberg said last week in his weekly radio show.


MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Everything the New York City Police Department has done is legal. It is appropriate. It is constitutional. They are permitted to travel beyond the borders of New York City to investigate cases. We don't target individuals based on race or religion.

MARTIN: Matt, is this what they've been saying to you as well?

APUZZO: That's right. They say they don't target individuals based on race or religion, but the reports that we've obtained from the Demographics Unit and the reports that have been reported out from inside mosques made clear that maybe they're not targeting individuals, but they're certainly targeting Muslim neighborhoods, Muslim communities, to investigate whether there's a threat not only to investigate the threat.

MARTIN: Zahir, what do you make of the argument - this is one of the arguments that we have heard, is that they need to establish what's normal so that they can know what's not normal and that their efforts are intended to keep law-abiding Muslims safe just as much as they are intended to keep other people safe. How do you respond to that?

LATHEEF: I think the concern here is that the NYPD has equated keeping our country safe with religious and racial profiling or profiling by ethnicity. You know, as a community, we fully support the investigation of legitimate threats to our country and appreciate the efforts of law enforcement to keep us safe. But we feel that actions like the NYPD spying program are in fact counterproductive to developing trusting relationships between law enforcement and the American Muslim community. And spying on people simply based on religious and racial profiling will not keep our country safe.

And, you know, when I heard about this story I think many in the Muslim community felt a sense of betrayal or at least at a minimum feeling misled because law enforcement for years now has been approaching the American Muslim community, encouraging open dialogue and positive engagement. And so, while we're making efforts to that end to find out that the NYPD was sending spies on an innocent activity like whitewater rafting trips and then reporting back on the number of the times they prayed, that's extremely frustrating.

MARTIN: But what about the whole argument about the websites? The fact is that the Internet has been a recruiting tool. What about the argument that that is - it's an obvious place to look?

LATHEEF: Yeah, I think after Mayor Bloomberg's press conference and watching a lot of the comments on various blogs, a lot of people have disregarded this issue of actually sending spies on these trips and just talking about what's in the public domain and monitoring these websites.

I think that's less of a problem, compared to actually sending people where Muslim students are not sure when they're attending these activities or when they're on their campus - if they're being watched by law enforcement.

MARTIN: Matt, Zahir talked about spending spies - if we use that term - or agents, undercover informants, whatever term people want to use - on a whitewater rafting trip and documenting how many times people prayed. Is that true?

APUZZO: Correct.


APUZZO: We've obtained some documents that show that that did happen. It was one of a number of cases of the NYPD infiltrating student groups.

MARTIN: Well, a couple more questions for you, Matt. As you certainly know, the Associated Press now has its critics. There was a column that's been widely cited in the New York Post, which is, of course, known to be a conservative paper.

One of their columnists wrote a column saying that the Associated Press has been waging a journalistic jihad against the NYPD in the name of civil rights, which they put in quotes, and that what the NYPD is doing is just common sense.

APUZZO: Well, sure. You know, the editorials in the New York Post and the New York Daily News have talked a lot about how this program, these sorts of programs are absolutely necessary, and then there have been editorials elsewhere saying, no, this is absolutely not necessary. That's a great debate. When you look at the issues of the last decade, from waterboarding, black sites, the issue wasn't just is this legal. It's what's the best way to fight terrorism. And you can't have that discussion unless you know the facts, so you know, we've been trying to put the facts out there. We expect, of course people are going to come down and say this is great. And some people are going to come down and say, no, this is terrible. I mean, you know, we're happy that people are talking about it.

MARTIN: And, finally, we indicated that it is - the federal government is now interested. The U.S. Justice Department is now interested. Can you tell us more about what kinds of questions they're asking and where that goes from here?

APUZZO: Sure. So there were - I don't know - about three dozen members of Congress have asked the attorney general, Eric Holder and his civil rights division to look into this. They have said they are looking into the request to look into the programs.

The NYPD doesn't have a ton of outside oversight on these programs, so it's a little bit unclear who, if anyone, actually even has the authority to say is this the most effective way to do policing, or to give it the thumbs up and say, yeah, this is absolutely the model we want for our country.

MARTIN: Zahir, I'm going to give you the final word. Matt said it's important that these kinds of conversations have been sparked by their reporting. What kinds of conversations are you and your fellow students having among yourselves?

LATHEEF: Well, I think one of the concerns on the ground with our students is the fear and hesitation that some students might be feeling. And we are concerned that they lose what we like to refer to as a home away from home, which is what the Muslim Student Association is for a lot of them, and that if, you know, Muslim students are now afraid to join a charity basketball tournament or volunteer with local food banks, that would be a terrible outcome of this. And I think we can't afford for our students to lose that safe space on campus.

MARTIN: Zahir Latheef is the president of the National Muslim Students Association. He joined us from College Station Texas. Matt Apuzzo is a reporter with the Associated Press's investigative team and he joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

APUZZO: Michel, thanks a lot.

LATHEEF: Thank you.

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