After 9/11, Americans fell in love with the New York Police Department. We were all New Yorkers then, with NYPD hats and T-shirts to prove it. Little did we know that a unit of the NYPD would soon mount a surveillance operation targeting people who had neither committed nor threatened to commit crimes. In the name of security, the department’s intelligence division sent “rakers” and “mosque crawlers” to infiltrate New York’s Muslim communities and collect personal data on people with no terrorist inclinations. It wasted millions of dollars on travel, food, and drink for its agents. For all the files it assembled on law-abiding residents, when an actual threat arose, it had no dope on the New Yorkers who were carrying it out.
A team of Associated Press reporters exposed this behavior in investigative reports that won a Pulitzer Prize this year. Two of them, Matt Apuzzo ’00 and Adam Goldman, have retold and expanded the story in Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit and Bin Laden’s Final Plot against America.
As the subtitle suggests, the book is really two stories in one. The foiled al-Qaeda plot to bomb the New York subway in 2009 makes for a suspenseful tale. The more disturbing story details how a unit of the NYPD took advantage of public fear and a court ruling to run roughshod over the rights of Muslims in the city and beyond.
The court decision removed checks on police power that had been in place since 1985 allowing police to “investigate constitutionally protected activities only when it had specific information that a crime was being committed or was imminent,” Apuzzo and Goldman write.
Two months after the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD hired David Cohen, the CIA station chief in New York, to run its intelligence division. Cohen seized the moment. He persuaded a judge that fighting terrorism was impossible if the police had to wait for evidence of a crime. In the atmosphere of fear and anger that followed the World Trade Center attacks, public dollars in the tens of millions were Cohen’s for the asking.
This combination—easy money and a court decision that removed any check on the intel division’s activities—led to near-absolute power for Cohen and his officers.
Soon they were abusing it. The book details a wholesale invasion by NYPD agents, many of them inept, into Muslim communities in New York, on Long Island, in Westchester County, and even in New Jersey. At mosques, “the NYPD’s web of cops and crawlers ... reported on the ethnicities and national origins of those who prayed. They wrote down the names of those who sat on governing councils, or shuras. Informants snapped pictures and collected license plate numbers of congregants as they arrived. Police mounted cameras on light poles and aimed them on mosques.”
These activities and a complex bugging operation helped Cohen and his analysts develop a long list of “mosques of concern,” including some with mainly African-American members who had no known proclivity for terrorism. In all their years of gathering data, the NYPD intel division and its “Demographics Unit” missed Najibullah Zazi, a native Afghan who was actually planning a terrorist attack in New York City. They had plenty of information about the kabob house, the YMCA, and the mosque in his neighborhood, but nothing on him. The opening scene of Enemies Within is Zazi mixing everyday chemicals to create the explosives for the 2009 subway bombing mission.
Apuzzo and Goldman write in the crisp, spare style of AP reporters: simple declarative sentences, simple words. This is particularly effective in telling the story of Zazi and his friends. Fortunately, cooperation between the FBI and the CIA had improved significantly since 9/11, and it was these agencies, not the NYPD, that stopped the terrorists.
Enemies Within tells a sobering and important story whose moral is a perennial question in American society: What price security?
No one wants another 9/11, and after that tragedy, government agencies at all levels took bold steps to prevent such an attack. Americans gave politicians leeway—and continue to do so. Supporters have said that the ethnic profiling and other excesses of the NYPD’s intel division are a price worth paying for more than a decade without a major terrorist attack. After all, America’s enemies are Islamist extremists.
Enemies Within undermines this view, showing that allowing police agencies to operate without checks is still a formula for abuse and waste. The intelligence techniques Apuzzo and Goldman document are needlessly invasive, demonstrably ineffective, and more likely to produce grief than to prevent it.
Mike Pride is the editor emeritus of the Concord Monitor and a member of the selection committee for the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award at Colby. A former member of the board that awards the Pulitzer Prizes, he is also a historian. His latest book is Our War: Days and Events in the Fight for the Union.