Stories Put Spotlight On NYPD Surveillance Program After the Sept. 11 attacks, the New York City Police Department transformed itself into an aggressive domestic intelligence unit and monitored hundreds of Muslims in their mosques, workplaces and schools. Journalist Matt Apuzzo, who helped uncover the story, just won a Pulitzer Prize.

Stories Put Spotlight On NYPD Surveillance Program

Stories Put Spotlight On NYPD Surveillance Program

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Muslim community members and supporters march near 1 Police Plaza to protest the New York Police Department surveillance operations of Muslim communities, Friday, Nov. 18, 2011, in New York. Bebeto Matthews/AP hide caption

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Bebeto Matthews/AP

Since last August, the Associated Press' investigative reporting team has published more than a dozen stories from an ongoing investigation into the New York City police department's secret spying program that monitored daily life in Muslim communities.

This week, the AP's four reporters — Chris Hawley, Adam Goldman, Eileen Sullivan and Matt Apuzzo — received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The citation noted that their investigation resulted "in congressional calls for a federal investigation, and a debate over the proper role of domestic intelligence gathering."

On Wednesday's Fresh Air, Apuzzo joins Terry Gross for a conversation about the AP series, which revealed that the NYPD transformed itself after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks into an aggressive domestic intelligence unit and monitored hundreds of Muslims in their mosques, workplaces and schools — even when there was no evidence of any wrongdoing.

"It was really an effort to build databases of where Muslims live, eat, work, shop and pray," Apuzzo says.

Police officers also built databases on various ethnic communities in New York City, compiling information on where people of certain ethnicities gathered and worked.

"It was so that if, if there was a tip that an Egyptian terrorist was in New York City and was planning an attack, the idea was the NYPD could pull their Egyptian file off the shelf and they'd know where that guy is likely to live, where he's likely to pray, where he's likely to buy breakfast, and they can then focus all of their attention on those places," he says.

Matt Apuzzo is a member of the AP's investigative team, based in Washington. He focuses on national security and intelligence matters. Carolyn Kaster/AP hide caption

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Carolyn Kaster/AP

Matt Apuzzo is a member of the AP's investigative team, based in Washington. He focuses on national security and intelligence matters.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

"While that certainly seems like something you want the police department to do ... the offshoot of that is that you're collecting personal information on many, many people who have no connection to terrorism, who are completely innocent," he says.

Until Apuzzo and his fellow AP reporters started publishing their stories, few were aware that the New York City monitoring program existed or that it had extensive connections to the CIA.

Last August, Apuzzo and Goldman, his fellow AP reporter, discovered that veteran CIA officer Larry Sanchez was kept on the CIA payroll and sent to New York's police department to help build out its intelligence operation.

"With Larry's help, the NYPD really ramped up its transformation from police to intelligence," says Apuzzo. "A lot of these programs really came about with Larry's help while he was on the CIA payroll."

The CIA is prohibited from spying on Americans but worked closely with the NYPD on transforming its intelligence unit.

"It raises a host of questions about where the line is between the CIA helping the NYPD do intelligence gathering on Americans and the CIA actually doing intelligence gathering on Americans," says Apuzzo.

After the story broke, the CIA's inspector general opened an investigation and found no evidence that the CIA conducted domestic spying or violated the law.

"[I am paraphrasing here but he said...] 'We don't see any evidence that the CIA actually conducted domestic spying, and we don't see any violations of law here. But, looking back, we maybe showed some poor judgment sending Larry to New York with no oversight, with no clear rules ... and we probably handled that poorly,' " says Apuzzo.

"When Larry left the NYPD in 2010, he was replaced in 2011 by another senior CIA officer. After our stories broke, the CIA announced it would be bringing that officer home," he says. "And it doesn't look like the CIA is going to be sending anyone back to the NYPD or duplicating that relationship in other departments."

But the monitoring program still exists in some respects.

Last October, Apuzzo and Goldman reported that the NYPD keeps track of every person in the city who changes his or her name. When that person's name sounds Arabic, the police run an extensive background check that is then put in a database for future reference.

"That's just a fascinating effort because the changing of names — the Americanization of names — is such a part of the immigrant story of America," says Apuzzo. "To see it now being scanned for potential red flags for terrorism just shows how much has changed in New York since 9/11, not just on the ground, but the way we view things in New York."

Since the AP stories broke, the NYPD has vigorously defended the monitoring programs as lawful and necessary, says Apuzzo.

"The NYPD has smartly said that we are constantly at risk of being attacked, and they point to a list of 14 plots that were unsuccessful — either by good work of NYPD, good work by somebody else or luck," he says.

"The question is, really, does the nonexistence of another attack prove that the programs that are in place are working? And the NYPD has said, 'Yes.' ... And of course, there's no way to disprove that. Because if we were to be attacked tomorrow, nobody presumably would say, 'This proves your programs don't work and we should stop doing them.' So it's not so much of a purely logical debate, it's more of a policy debate of what we want our police department to be doing."