Opinion

Juliette Kayyem

NYPD stumbles in terror hunt

THE UNITED States’ efforts to kill Osama bin Laden were rightfully kept secret from the Pakistanis. Only government incompetence or collusion could explain bin Laden’s uninterrupted presence there. The Pakistanis could not be trusted.

Of all the recent disclosures, reported by the Associated Press, regarding the New York Police Department’s sweeping and secret surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods and citizens by their “Demographics Unit,’’ the most telling is that the NYPD failed to notify New Jersey officials that cops were trolling there too. That omission suggests why the demographics program is less about good law enforcement and more about the NYPD’s thinking.

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New Jersey is a lot of things, but it is not Pakistan.

Since the disclosures, the controversy has been about the legality and civil liberties implications around the use of undercover “mosque crawlers’’ and other officers who “raked’’ sources trying to find terrorist hotbeds lingering in open mosques or Muslim businesses. In 2007, the program extended to Newark, as catalogued in a 60-page report for the NYPD only. The report offers nothing on crimes, but does provide Zagat-friendly tidbits about an Afghan fried chicken restaurant in Newark that seats “10 to 15 customers.’’

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It is predictable that New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has defended a controversial program by wrapping himself in the Constitution and, catering to the worst in majority rule, arguing that most polls support him. “It’s legal,’’ however, is a crutch, an after-the-fact defense being used by the NYPD to distract from a much more damaging analysis.

If the trolling is effective, then the failure to share information with New Jersey is damning. If it isn’t effective, then why is it being done?

In its best light, the program is the NYPD’s way of saying that all this talk of partnering with Arab and Muslim communities to work together to fight terrorism is useless. The very existence of the Demographics Unit was denied until recently. Information was collected and classified. It was so counter to expectations that the same Muslim imams being celebrated by the NYPD as partners in law enforcement were actually being watched by undercover officers.

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If moving to non-specific covert operations is the best way to fight terrorism in the United States, an arguable notion at best, then not telling neighbors across the river seems even more negligent. If the police department that lost so much on 9/11 has come to this fundamental conclusion about the dangers of Muslims in our midst, shouldn’t they share that information with their brethren next door?

Instead, at least from the disclosures of New Jersey officials including Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie, the NYPD gave vague representations to New Jersey police that they were there gathering information for a particular investigation that did not actually exist.

Translating federal foreign intelligence strategies to the local context is a fundamental shift for law enforcement. It is so radical that CIA agents assisted the NYPD in devising the program - without CIA lawyers knowing about it.

Since 9/11, an entire domestic law enforcement and intelligence sharing apparatus has been initiated because of the “stovepiping’’ that kept authorities from connecting the dots. The nationwide Joint Terrorism Task Forces, for example, bring together every federal, state, and local law enforcement entities to discuss leads and share practices.

NYPD decided to reject that notion of sharing, even as they collected the information in other jurisdictions.

Acting alone, the NYPD is carrying a lot of weight for the rest of the nation. Let’s hope they are good at what they do; they must think so. At least that kind of certainty is one explanation for why they kept New Jersey in the dark. Newark is pretty difficult to confuse with Islamabad.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.
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