NEW YORK — In more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques, the New York Police Department’s secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation, the department acknowledged in court testimony unsealed late Monday.
The Demographics Unit is at the heart of a police spying program, built with help from the CIA, which assembled databases on where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed. Police infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques, monitored sermons and catalogued every Muslim in New York who adopted new, Americanized surnames.
Civil rights lawyers believe the Demographics Unit violated those rules. Documents obtained by the AP show the unit conducted operations outside its jurisdiction, including in New Jersey. The FBI there said those operations damaged its partnerships with Muslims and jeopardized national security.
After the AP began reporting on the Demographics Unit, the department’s former senior analyst, Mitchell Silber, said the unit provided the tip that ultimately led to a case against a bookstore clerk who was convicted of plotting to bomb the Herald Square subway station in Manhattan. Galati testified that he could find no evidence of that.
Attorney Jethro Eisenstein, who filed the Handschu case more than 40 years ago and questioned Galati during the deposition, said he will go back to court soon to ask that the Demographics Unit be shut down. It operates today under a new name, the Zone Assessment Unit. It recently stopped operating out of state, Galati said.
“This is a terribly pernicious set of policies,” Eisenstein said. “No other group since the Japanese Americans in World War II has been subjected to this kind of widespread public policy.”
Dozens of members of Congress have asked the Justice Department to investigate the NYPD. Attorney General Eric Holder has said he was disturbed by the reports. But John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, has said he is confident the NYPD’s activities are lawful and have kept the city safe.