Some might argue that if you're going to make a counter-terrorism omelet, you've got to break a few Constitutional eggs. The NYPD has been doing it for over six years since 9/11 using a special division called the Demographics Unit, headed by a former CIA spook. This sweeping surveillance operation has cast a wide net through mosques and Muslim communities in New York, New Jersey, and beyond. But despite all the spying, the unit has not generated a single lead or investigation. Not even a lousy Egg Beaters frittata.
"I never made a lead from rhetoric that came from a Demographics report, and I'm here since 2006," Assistant Chief Thomas Galati admitted during a deposition at the end of June as part of a longstanding federal civil rights case. "I don't recall other ones prior to my arrival. Again, that's always a possibility. I am not aware of any." Nevertheless, Galati defended the controversial unit, which was renamed "the Zone Assessment Unit" after being cast in the spotlight by a series of doggedly-reported Associated Press articles. Today the AP reports:
In one instance discussed in the testimony, plainclothes NYPD officers known as "rakers" overheard two Pakistani men complaining about airport security policies that they believed unfairly singled out Muslims. They bemoaned what they saw as the nation's anti-Muslim sentiment since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Galati said police were allowed to collect that information because the men spoke Urdu, a fact that could help police find potential terrorists in the future. "I'm seeing Urdu. I'm seeing them identify the individuals involved in that are Pakistani," Galati explained. "I'm using that information for me to determine that this would be a kind of place that a terrorist would be comfortable in."
He added, "Most Urdu speakers from that region would be of concern, so that's why it's important to me." About 15 million Pakistanis and 60 million Indians speak Urdu. Along with English, it is one of the national languages of Pakistan.
The NYPD is the largest police department in the world, but perhaps the problem here is that the Zone Assessment Unit is just too small. If only they had a few million more Urdu-speaking officers, maybe they'd have better luck fishing for terrorists...
In 1971, the NYPD was sued in federal court for spying on political activists and civil rights organizers, and the department was ordered to adhere to federal guidelines prohibiting it from collecting information about political speech—unless it's related to potential terrorism. Attorney Jethro Eisenstein filed that lawsuit (known as the Handschu case) and says he'll go back to court soon to force the NYPD to shut the program down. "This is a terribly pernicious set of policies," Eisenstein tells the AP. "No other group since the Japanese Americans in World War II has been subjected to this kind of widespread public policy."