Since August of 2011, the Associated Press has published a series of reports revealing the New York Police Department's involvement in the monitoring of Muslim communities across the Northeast. The investigation revealed that the department was monitoring a huge swath of presumably innocent people from New Jersey to Connecticut, sometimes without the knowledge of local law enforcement. We spoke with the AP's Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes about how the story developed, where the information comes from and about the raging debate on maintaining civil liberties in the War on Terror.
Why release these individual investigative pieces? Why not one big document dump? Totally good question. Well, let me go back to how this began. Around this time last year, we came to the conclusion that one of the biggest stories in the country right now was the decisions the country was making as a result of its response to the attacks on the Trade Center and the Pentagon. This included the dramatic increase in the size and influence of the intelligence community and the various trade-offs that society was making between individual rights and liberties and the need to protect security. So we assigned two reporters in Washington to begin exploring the issues created by the rise of what I call the new intelligence community.
Many of the powers that used to be held inside of the Pentagon were actually now moving over to the CIA, the intelligence world. So we assigned two reporters,Apuzzo and Goldman, who we had really just sent down from New York to take that on as a beat. In fact, if you go back, you'll see that there were a number of stories that they wrote about the CIA and about other intelligence issues. And then, in the course of working on those stories they became aware that there was a lot of discussion in intelligence circles about the relationship between the CIA and the NYPD and about the police department's activities of an intelligence nature. Some of this conversation was critical, some of it was positive—praising the police department for being innovative.
So they began to look at the NYPD's activities—and this is bringing me back around now to your question—we wrote a big story back in the beginning, which, at the time we did it, we didn't necessarily expect we would be doing many more stories. It was a story about what we'd learned and we tried to make it as comprehensive as possible at the time. If you go back and look at it you'll see it's written in a kind of broad way meant to be somewhat comprehensive. But what we discovered was that the more we wrote about this, the more material was delivered to us, the more sources came forward to tell us more about it. So we haven't been sitting on information. Every time we write, more information arrives. And so that's the reason why it's come out in this way. It was not planned. In fact, it's us responding to new material as it comes in.
And when you're saying "delivered" do you mean solely by sources or FOIL requests? Where is material coming from? We have filed a number of FOIL requests, most of which have been rejected by the police department and the city, so in fact most of the material is being provided to us by sources. You and everybody else in the world can see most of the material because as we get things we've been posting them and sharing them. Most of what we get we've shared. There are maybe a few things we haven't for security reasons or because we think they would reveal something about either the intelligence methods or the sources. but most of what we've gotten, we've actually posted so the material is public.
Could you describe your relationship in terms of getting the NYPD to comment on some of these pieces? How long do you guys sit on something and wait for them to comment? Or what is your relationship with Paul Browne in terms of having him respond to the information that keeps on turning up? Well, as you may know, Paul Browne and I go back about 30 years. He and I were reporters together in Albany many years ago. So I have known Paul and respected and admired him for a very long time. The individual stories, I think it's a little different in different situations. In some cases we've waited many days for a response. In other cases I think it's been less time. I don't know that there's one, whats the word I'm looking for, one template.
Mayor Bloomberg's spokesman has tried to deflect some of the controversy of these reports by saying a lot of what came out recently is just information that's readily available to anyone on the internet—public information. The line goes that they weren't necessarily "spying" on anyone, they were just logging on to websites, so why should Americans and New Yorkers care that the NYPD is just surfing the web and spitting it back out onto Microsoft Word? Well, you know, we don't have an opinion. The AP does not have opinion about whether the police department should or should not be doing these things. We only feel that the activities of the police department in its efforts to create a secure New York has mounted an intelligence effort, all of it put together, that's clearly larger than anything else going on in the country, in some ways larger than anything the federal government is doing. I think that's newsworthy.
Right, but again, they'll say: if the NYPD is combing public information and returning the results to their superiors, how is that news? Well, it's part of their intelligence activities and the articles are about all of their intelligence activities. As you know from reading the stories, that's not the only thing that was in that story. There was the rafting trip, which is not surfing the web. But it's—I don't have a response to the mayor. We published an article. It's for the public to decide whether this is what the police department should do or not. I don't have a view on that at all. I do have an opinion that the police department organized an intelligence undertaking after 9/11 that was clearly larger than anything had ever occurred before in the US at a local police department level or even possibly that ever occurred on any level and that it's for the society to decide whether these are activities that should happen or not. Some people clearly are troubled by the review of these websites and others view it as perfectly acceptable. I think that's a debate for the society to have. It's not for me to have an opinion on the mayor's comments and I don't.
That massive undertaking that you're describing, Commissioner Kelly's gone on record denying that the undertaking is based on these people's religion or nationality. Do the substance of the AP's reports support that position? I'm sorry, support Kelly or support some other point of view?
Support the view that this undertaking that you described as being one of the largest in the country, if not the largest in the country, has been done regardless of someones religion or nationality. He has gone on record saying that's the case. Do you think the substance of the AP's reports support that assertion? You know, I think I'll let the stories speak for themselves. I think they address those questions pretty clearly. But it's for the public to decide.
What do you think about critics who say the AP's reporting could put New Yorkers at risk of another terrorist attack, by discouraging the NYPD's investigations? As one Post columnist put it, "In the real world, the mean streets were tamed through hard, smart and dangerous police work that aims to prevent crime and terror, not just react to it." We are very proud of this coverage. Our job is not to decide how police should do their work but to give the larger community information that would allow for appropriate oversight and judgment. That is how democracy works. No one is above oversight. From the press and ultimately the public. It is the very system the NYPD and other agencies are working to uphold.
What else can we expect from the AP on this front? Is the fire hose going to stay on? It completely depends on if we learn something new. We don't have further stories—we have a couple of things that we're looking into which I can't talk about yet. They may or may not turn out to be stories. I don't know where this will go. I really don't.
So there's no crack NYPD investigation squad at the AP's offices? Basically four reporters have done the bulk of this work, all though not all of it. Today, for example, there are a couple of reporters out in New Jersey who are very involved because Governor Christie and Mayor Booker are involved so they're out there talking to them. Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, who I mentioned, and then after they got going we added Eileen Sullivan and Chris Hawley in support of them because they had sources or knowledge that was valuable. So the four of them are the key people who work on this. It's not all they do, they do other things—and at this point, it will continue if the story continues. If we feel there's nothing more to say we'll stop saying it.
I think, at this point, one of the interesting developments to the extent to which there's a bit of a debate—the President of Yale, the Mayor of Newark, the Mayor of New York [Ed: and now the Governor of New Jersey] are actually debating the fundamental issue which is what line should society draw between individual rights and the security of us all. The mayor was explicit about that point, the President of Yale was pretty explicit about that point. That's the kind of question society should debate. All we're doing is providing some information that's part of that debate.
This interview has been compiled from a phone conversation and an email. It has been edited and condensed.