NEW YORK — Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the New York Police Department has become one of the nation's most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies, targeting ethnic communities in ways that would run afoul of civil liberties rules if practiced by the federal government, according to an Associated Press investigation.
The CIA is prohibited from spying on Americans. But in a partnership that has blurred the line between foreign and domestic spying, the CIA dispatched undercover officers, known as "rakers," into minority neighborhoods as part of a human mapping program, AP said it was told by officials involved in the program.
Police also used informants, known as "mosque crawlers," to monitor sermons, even when there's no evidence of wrongdoing, AP said it learned.
Neither the City Council, which finances the department, nor the federal government, which has given NYPD more than $1.6 billion since Sept. 11, 2001, is told exactly what's going on, AP said.
The NYPD denied that it trolls ethnic neighborhoods and said it only follows leads.
"The New York Police Department is doing everything it can to make sure there's not another 9/11 here and that more innocent New Yorkers are not killed by terrorists," NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said.
AP said its investigation is based on documents and interviews with more than 40 current and former New York Police Department and federal officials. "This is potentially illegal, what they're doing," said Gadeir Abbas, a staff attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
In response, CAIR called on the Justice Department to investigate. The Justice Department had no immediate comment.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2011, New York hired retired CIA official David Cohen. Among Cohen's earliest moves at the NYPD, according to AP, was asking for help from his old CIA colleagues.
CIA director George Tenet dispatched Larry Sanchez, a respected CIA veteran, to New York while Sanchez was still on the CIA payroll, and Sanchez directed and mentored officers, schooling them in the art of gathering information, AP said it was told by former intelligence officials.
There had never been an arrangement like it, and AP said some senior CIA officials soon began questioning whether Tenet was allowing Sanchez to operate on both sides of the wall that's supposed to keep the CIA out of the domestic intelligence business.
"It should not be a surprise to anyone that, after 9/11, the Central Intelligence Agency stepped up its cooperation with law enforcement on counterterrorism issues or that some of that increased cooperation was in New York," CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood said.
Cohen also persuaded a federal judge to loosen rules and allow police to open investigations before there's any indication a crime has been committed, AP said, and with that new authority created a secret squad to infiltrate Muslim neighborhoods.
Using census data, police matched undercover officers to ethnic communities, and officers hung out in hookah bars and cafes. The unit became known inside the department as the Demographic Unit.
"It's not a question of profiling. It's a question of going where the problem could arise," said Mordecai Dzikansky, a retired NYPD intelligence officer who said he was aware of the Demographic Unit.
For years, detectives also used informants known as mosque crawlers to monitor sermons, AP said. If FBI agents were to do that, they would be in violation of the Privacy Act, which prohibits the federal government from collecting intelligence on purely First Amendment activities.
Browne, the NYPD spokesman, denied the accounts of mosque crawlers and rakers. He said the NYPD only uses undercover officers and informants to follow leads.
Last month, the CIA sent a senior spy to New York to work out of police headquarters, on the CIA payroll, AP said. He is a special assistant in the intelligence division, and his name remains classified.
"It's like starting the CIA over in the post-9/11 world," Cohen said in Securing the City, a 2009 book about the NYPD. "What would you do if you could begin it all over again? Hah. This is what you would do."