Image: Amine Darhbach
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
Amine Darhbach, a U.S. citizen originally from Morocco, cuts hair at his barber shop on Sept. 2. Darhbach had been under scrutiny by the New York Police Department as part of a secret program to gather intelligence on the city's Moroccan population.
updated 9/22/2011 5:28:19 AM ET 2011-09-22T09:28:19

Correction: Because of an editing error, in earlier versions of this story the acronym NYPD was replaced with another word.

The New York Police Department put American citizens under surveillance and scrutinized where they ate, prayed and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The documents describe in extraordinary detail a secret program intended to catalog life inside Muslim neighborhoods as people immigrated, got jobs, became citizens and started businesses. The documents undercut the NYPD's claim that its officers only follow leads when investigating terrorism.

It started with one group, Moroccans, but the documents show police intended to build intelligence files on other ethnicities.

Undercover officers snapped photographs of restaurants frequented by Moroccans, including one that was noted for serving "religious Muslims." Police documented where Moroccans bought groceries, which hotels they visited and where they prayed. While visiting an apartment used by new Moroccan immigrants, an officer noted in his reports that he saw two Qurans and a calendar from a nearby mosque.

It was called the Moroccan Initiative.

The information was recorded in NYPD computers, officials said, so that if police ever received a specific tip about a Moroccan terrorist, officers looking for him would have details about the entire community at their fingertips.

The documents show how New York's rich heritage as a place where immigrants traditionally have blended in and built their lives now clashes with today's New York, where police see blending in as one of the first priorities for would-be terrorists.

Video: AP report: NYPD targeting ethnic communities (on this page)

To prevent attacks, police monitored the path that generations of immigrants followed: getting an apartment, learning English, finding work, assimilating into the culture. Activities such as haircuts and gym workouts were transformed from mundane daily routines into police data points.

A U.S. citizen in Queens, for example, starts work each day at what police labeled "a known Moroccan barbershop."

Started under Bush
The AP previously revealed the secret operations of the NYPD intelligence division as it mapped the Muslim community in and around New York, monitored life in ethnic neighborhoods and scrutinized mosques. The Moroccan Initiative was one of the division's projects.

Such programs began with help from the CIA under President George W. Bush and have continued with at least the tacit support of President Barack Obama, whose administration repeatedly has sidestepped questions about them. It is unclear whether Mayor Michael Bloomberg oversaw the programs. He has refused to comment directly about them.

In response to the AP's earlier stories, the CIA's inspector general is investigating whether its unusually close relationship with the NYPD was unlawful.

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne did not return messages seeking comment about the Moroccan Initiative. In an earlier email, he said the department was not involved in wholesale spying, but rather was trying to document the likely whereabouts of terrorists.

"The unit's personnel would try to establish, for example, what border crossing a terrorist entering New York would use, what flop house he'd use, what Internet cafe he'd frequent to communicate, etc.," he wrote.

It's unclear exactly when the initiative began and whether it continues in any form. Current and former officials told the AP that it started in response to the 2003 suicide bombings that killed 45 people in the Moroccan city of Casablanca and the 2005 train bombing in Madrid that was linked to Moroccan terrorists.

In early meetings, police were told there was no specific threat to New York from Moroccans, officials said, but they were instructed to gather intelligence on the Moroccan community because of concerns Moroccan terrorists might strike here too.

NYPD intelligence chief David Cohen, a former senior CIA officer, oversaw the program, current and former officials said. Many of the documents obtained by the AP were prepared for Police Commissioner Ray Kelly but because of the volume of such documents his office receives, it's unclear whether he read them.

Unenforceable law?
New York City law prohibits police from using race, religion or ethnicity as "the determinative factor" for any law enforcement action. Civil liberties advocates have said that is so ambiguous it makes the law unenforceable. The NYPD has said intelligence officers do not use racial profiling or troll ethnic neighborhoods for information.

The documents obtained by the AP, many of which were marked "secret," include a list of "Moroccan Locations," a virtual tour of the city's Moroccan neighborhoods. Photos of local businesses were accompanied by notes from plainclothes officers, known as rakers, who quietly kept tabs on ethnic neighborhoods and eavesdropped on conversations.

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"A lot of these locations were innocent," said an official involved in the effort, who like many others interviewed by the AP spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive police operations. "They just happened to be in the community."

Sometimes the notes recorded in police files were detailed, such as the officer who reported that a local sandwich shop was close to a mosque and said the store was closed during Friday prayers.

"The restaurant serves only Halal meat," the document said. "The majority of the customers are religious Muslims."

Halal meat is prepared under religious rules similar to kosher food.

Other businesses were described with fewer details. But in every case, the officers noted the ethnicity of the owners.

"In America, you don't put people under suspicion without good reason," said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., who reviewed some of the documents obtained by the AP and has urged the Justice Department to investigate. "The idea that people in a group are suspect because of being members of a group is profiling, plain and simple."

Amusement then anger
Business owners in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, where many of the pictures were taken, at first expressed amusement at seeing themselves alongside their friends and neighbors in documents compiled by officers hunting for terrorists.

"Police come here for what? We cut hair all day," said Amine Darhbach, a U.S. citizen barber who charges $12 for a haircut and sends a portion of his earnings to his family in Morocco each month.

As they flipped through the documents, they said they grudgingly accepted the police attention. It is hardly news to them that, since the 2001 terrorist attacks, Muslims are under greater scrutiny by the public and law enforcement.

"We've been harassed for so long, it doesn't make any sense to complain," said Leo Santini, a cafe owner and U.S. citizen who changed his name from Mohamed Hussein because he thought he would be treated better without such an Arab name. His three American kids, he said, "don't look Arab, so they won't have any problems."

Story: Intel officials' emails posted after hack of cybersecurity group

Finally, there was frustration and anger about being included in police documents.

"All I want is the best for my daughter and my community and to be treated like a new American citizen," said Sanaa Bergha, whose travel agency was among the businesses photographed in the intelligence files.

Like others, Bergha said that, if asked, she would talk to police about how she could help keep the city safe. But she's only spoken to the police twice, she said. Once was after she was burglarized. The second was when she reported customers she suspected of making fraudulent documents.

The documents on the Moroccan businesses were compiled by a secretive team called the Demographics Unit, which police originally denied existed. After the AP obtained police documents describing the unit as a team of 16 officers with a mission to map and monitor ethnic neighborhoods, the department said the Demographics Unit used to exist but actually never had more than eight officers.

Only followed leads?
Browne, the department's spokesman, has said the unit only followed leads. There is no indication in the documents, however, that police were only investigating criminal leads. Information about crimes was included in the Moroccan Initiative files, but these do not appear to be the program's focus.

"The Demographics Team was instructed by me to re-canvas the city for any new locations and they came across a newly identified hotel that is referred to Moroccan tourists," an unidentified supervisor wrote in an undated update on the initiative.

One police document, for example, lists taxi companies and Dunkin Donuts and Subway franchises known to hire Moroccans and other Arabs. A local gym and barber shop also are mentioned. The end of the document includes a section about criminal activity and identifies four businesses believed to be involved in marriage and document fraud and drug dealing.

Another document describes 14 restaurants, two travel agencies and a meat market catering to the Moroccan community. Another said the NYPD produced a list of every Moroccan cab driver in the city. Officers tried to interview them, but many were unavailable to be questioned because they were out working 12- to 14-hour shifts, the document said.

Current and former officials said the information collected by the Demographics Unit was kept on a computer inside the squad's offices at the Brooklyn Army Terminal. It was not connected to the department's central intelligence database, they said.

When a Moroccan was arrested, according to the documents, a unit called the Citywide Debriefing Team would visit him in jail or at his home. Each was asked how someone coming to the United States from Morocco might keep a low profile. Officers had a list of 13 questions, including where such a person might live, obtain identification cards, eat, worship and learn English.

The questions helped police identify small apartments in Brooklyn where Moroccan immigrants shared rooms soon after arriving in New York. Police visited one apartment in 2007 to meet with someone who had been arrested the prior year, according to the files. The officer noted the number of bedrooms, the layout, the furnishings and a wall calendar from a nearby mosque.

"There was a small table as well as an entertainment center," the document said. "There were two Qurans. One on top of each speaker."

Enormous pressure?
Police officials said such detailed note-taking was the result of enormous pressure inside the department. Officers assigned to conduct interviews and visit homes were told by supervisors that, if the subject of their interviews one day turned violent, their reports would be scrutinized with an eye for what warning signs were missed, officials said.

It was intended to keep officers sharp and remind them of the seriousness of the job, but officials said it encouraged well-meaning officers to record even innocent details.

Unlike the information from the Demographics Unit, the information from debriefings and personal visits was reported back to headquarters and entered into the police department's central intelligence database, the Intelligence Data System, officials said.

Because of lawsuits by civil liberties groups, police lawyers have set stricter limits in recent years about information the NYPD compiles about people not accused of any crime, current and former officials said. Lawyers review police reports and sometimes require officers to remove information or rewrite their reports. Some information on innocent behavior is removed. Other information is labeled "sealed," which means it can be seen only by very senior officials, the officials said.

Meanwhile, police received from the U.S. government regular updates on foreign visitors entering New York, according to documents and interviews. Police departments often receive information on visitors on a case-by-case basis. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which maintains the federal documents, declined to tell the AP whether such broad access to its immigration files by a city police department was unusual.

Using the documents, known as I-94s, New York police located and interviewed Moroccans and, when possible, the families they were visiting. Often, that would take them to the homes of U.S. citizens.

Police couldn't force people to talk to them or let them inside their homes, so officers often used a cover story about a crime in the neighborhood or a report of a missing child nearby, officials told the AP.

During such interviews, the officer would make note of the surroundings: What was on television? How many people lived there? What kind of furniture? If possible, police would collect from residents their names, phone numbers and occupations.

All this underscores the NYPD's transformation from a police department solving murders and muggings to a domestic intelligence agency. It's a transformation that Kelly, the police commissioner, makes no apologies for. He has credited intelligence efforts with thwarting terrorist attacks, and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan has called those efforts heroic.

No police department in the United States is known to employ programs like New York's. Police in Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest city, once considered a program that would have mapped the area's Muslim communities, but it was shut down after news coverage sparked wide criticism.

Other police departments, including those in cities with Moroccan populations, operate differently — whether for philosophical reasons, because they lack the NYPD's manpower or because their communities haven't been targeted repeatedly by terrorists like New York.

In Revere, Mass., police did not dispatch officers into its Moroccan community after the overseas attacks. Revere, a city north of Boston, has a small Moroccan enclave of about 800 people, but it ranks among the top 10 largest Moroccan communities in the country, according to the Census Bureau.

"We wouldn't just go and start interviewing people because of something that happened in another country," police Capt. James Guido said. "The guys here wouldn't even get involved in something like that."

New York sees things differently, not just because its Moroccan community is a population of about 9,000 and by far the nation's largest, but because Kelly has made it clear that the department will no longer wait for something to happen.

At the barber shop in Queens, Darhbach said he agrees police should keep the city safe but said that as an American citizen, his business shouldn't be listed in police files just for serving Moroccan customers. But like many of his neighbors, who grew up under the oppressive police forces of the Middle East and North Africa, Darhbach said things could be worse.

"In Morocco," he said, "police just come and take you away."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: AP report: NYPD targeting ethnic communities

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    >>> former governor howard dean , former d.c. mayor adrian fenty all back with us at the table. in the ten years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks the new york city police department has turned into one of the nation's most aggressive and sophisticated domestic intelligence agencies . the associated press is out just this morning with a monthlong investigation into the nypd 's intel division , exploring its methods and the controversies surrounding it, joining is matt acuso, thanks for being with us.

    >> thanks for having me.

    >> nypd changed the way it did business after the attacks on september 11th . what did you find?

    >> it not only changed the way it did business, it created a very deep connection with the cia . they started to -- the nypd started to build these intelligence programs that really infiltrated muslim communities in ways that if the federal government did it would totally go against rules that have been set up to protect civil liberties and they did it with this unusual partnership with the cia . a very senior cia officer was dispatched by cia director george tenet to be his personal representative to the nypd and really helped create these intelligence -gathering programs, directed the intelligence gathering , supervised the intelligence gathering and that's relationship that continues today. recently the cia sent one of its most senior undercover officers to work out of one police plaza in new york as a covert officer.

    >> so, we're talking about former cia agents now working within the new york police department , traveling --

    >> they're current cia officers.

    >> on the cia payroll, working with the new york police department , traveling abroad and using intelligence to work in conjunction with the nypd . we should point out the new york police department has put out a statement saying the new york police department is doing everything it can to assure that there's not another 9/11 here and more innocent new yorkers are killed by terrorists. we have nothing to apologize for in that regard. that from nypd spokesman paul broune. what's the biggest complaint with this program that you found in your investigation?

    >> one of the things that is little known that they do, they have this program called the demographics program. it was described to us by officers involved as they were mapping the human terrain of the city. they were putting undercover officers, ethnic officers, inside middle eastern neighborhoods of stocity and their job is to hang out and blend in and look for things that are suspicion. and that could be something as simple as who is looking at radical books in a bookstore and who is looking at al jazeera and applaud about a report about an ied in iraq and that could be enough to get you in a report at the nypd , they also have informants that they call mosque crawlers who as the name suggest just go to the mosques and are eyes and ears for the nypd inside mosques. the fbi puts informants in mosques but there's a bar that says there has to be specific information related to criminal activity and that bar isn't there at the nypd , the nypd said it just follows leads, but we've talked to a number of people involved in the mosque crawler program who say we just have them there as our eyes and ears.

    >> how does the nypd get away with that, then, if they don't have the legal right to do it as you suggest, how are they getting away with it?

    >> so, there's the federal laws that the federal government has to apply and then, you know, obviously nypd is subject to city and state laws. but what's really interesting here while, you know, the real question of the past decade at the federal level has been do we have to give up civil liberties in the name of security and that debate has kind of focused on the fbi and the cia , warrantless wiretapping that sort of thing. there hasn't been that kind of debate in new york . there isn't the level of oversight on the nypd 's intelligence division that there is in washington on, say, the cia or fbi . you know, the -- the tactics that they use don't get the kind of scrutiny by the city council , and the federal government has given the nypd about $1.6 billion since 9/11, but there's very little federal oversight when it comes to what exactly the nypd is doing as far as intelligence gathering .

    >> katty kay ?

    >> during your reporting, did you come across any officers within the nypd who had qualms about the legality of this? ever since 9/11 there has been a trend here for people to be prepared to give up civil liberties in the name of security, but i was just wondering whether you met people, you know, who knew about the program, within the police force who said we're not quite sure if this is really what we're meant to be doing?

    >> there were. it was interesting, there were people who said they felt uncomfortable, but those people didn't tend to be in the -- in the inner circle , the people who were directly involved in these programs. i mean, there's a close hold sort of a shudder of secrecy around a lot of what happens. the people who were directly involved, and we talked to a number of them, said almost to a person, look, we need to -- we need to be doing this. i mean, we have to be out in the muslim community because that's where the -- that's the community that is, you know, that's sending terrorists to attack us. and they compared it to, like, well, we would map drug dealing . we would map murders. the difference is in this instance you're not mapping crimes, you're mapping people. and that's -- that's the difference here. is they're saying it's no different than we would go to where the robberies are, we'd put undercovers there, here they're just saying we're going where the muslims are.

    >> are there any court cases pending on this issue? you would think somebody would complain that this is a violation of at least the fourth amendment and who knows what else.

    >> it's interesting because there is a lawsuit, a federal lawsuit, related to the nypd intelligence division intilltration of anti-war groups ahead of the republican national convention in new york . but what's unique about this, in order to bring a lawsuit about this, you have to kind of know about it. you have to know that you were -- you were surveilled. and if you don't know, then it's kind of hard to bring standing. i mean, in a lot of ways as we were doing this reporting, i kept going back to the nsa wiretapping program and the people who said, well, i'm going to sue about this, and the government says, you can't sue because you don't know if you were wiretapped, and we can't tell you if you were wiretapped because that would, you know, jeopardize national security .

    >> are these people being wiretapped? is that one of the things they're doing routinely?

    >> we don't have any information about any sort of wiretapping, you know, blanket wiretapping programs. but we know the nypd did push years ago to try to get fisa authority which was, you know, seen at the justice department as a real -- a real grab to try to have the ability to do wiretapping. you know, that was unsuccessful, but we didn't uncover any information about that.

    >> adrian fenty , as mayor of washington , d.c. , another city that, of course, was attacked on september 11th , anything similar to this within the washington police department?

    >> you know, we have a much smaller police department . 50,000 here in new york , 4,000 down in d.c. but d.c. absolutely has the counterintelligence units, but there's also the federal government in d.c. , so the fbi and homeland security is in d.c. and in the d.c. region is doing probably a lot of the new york that this new york police department unit does up here. from what i understand about it, it's essential, because the only way that you're going to know about communication around the new york region and what's happening overseas is to be in and around it, and the federal government doesn't have the resources. so, you got to give bloomberg and his team a lot of credit for setting this up, for being so aggressive. from what i understand, the federal government really relies on the nypd to bring back intelligence . one thing was interesting was how many threats come against new york and washington , d.c. my police chief down in d.c. was briefed daily on threats, and they had to follow them and track them to make sure that they didn't escalate into something.

    >> and, matt, how much of this is done because the people of new york city say do what you have to do to prevent another terrorist attack ? i mean, you said sanchez, larry sanchez, went in front of the federal government , he was up on capitol hill and said we've been given the public tolerance and the luxury to be very aggressive on this topic. they're going to keep going until they're told otherwise, aren't they?

    >> absolutely. and i think -- i think everybody acknowledges new york is different. and what, you know, mayor fenty said is absolutely right, i mean, nobody else has the -- nobody else has the resources. no other police department has the resources to do what the nypd is doing. i mean, i think the question is if this is a model for policing and counterterrorism, well, new york isn't the only -- isn't the only threat in the country. why aren't other police departments doing this? and what we've seen is there are instances where police departments have said, no, we don't want to do that. i mean, you know, in new york one of the things they did -- first things they did was said, you know, run me a report of all the pakistani cabdrivers so they could look for people who maybe got their taxi shields fraudulently so that they can maybe turn them into -- use that as leverage to turn them into an inform amendment. in cambridge, massachusetts, the police chief told us, yeah, we got a very similar request from boston pd for a list of all our somali cabdrivers and we said, no way, we don't do that, unless you have a specific criminal investigation or a cause. and in los angeles , you know, bill bratton , the police commissioner out there, i mean, just got skewered in 2007 for saying i would like to map my muslim community just so i know where this is. and civil rights groups just, you know, just hit the roof. so, i think, look, i think new york is unique. i think they do have a unique background given the -- given 9/11. they certainly have a deep relationship with the cia . the cia trained a police detective at the farm, you know, which is -- i mean, that's an unprecedented thing. so, it's -- they have that. they have 9/11. they have a lot of money. they have a low crime rate . these sorts of things are uniquely new york .

    >> matt, were there any instances you were given where the demographics unit, where the intelligence that are gathered have actually prevented some sort of terrorist attack ? a specific example of where it had worked?

    >> well, we know that the intelligence division has had successes. you know, the herald square plot ahead of the republican convention is a perfect example. it didn't show the depth of the program, but, i mean, they used an undercover officer living in brooklyn and hanging out and they used an informant who before he was involved in this investigation had been basically a mosque crawler. so, they prevented a -- they prevented a terrorist attack on the subway. they got convictions. i mean, there was also an instance where they were able to -- the intelligence division undercover operating in new jersey was key to -- to arresting two people who were on their way to somalia to train for -- for terrorism. so, i mean, no question the intelligence division has had successes and has disrupted -- disrupted plots. i mean, what we were trying to do is say, look, let's have the discussion. let's -- let's be able to have the discussion about what the -- if there are trade-offs for that security, what are they. because i think that discussion has happened in washington , d.c. , on federal programs, but it hasn't happened in new york .

    >> you know, a lot of this is going to be -- depend on the success or failure of this and the backlash if there is some, is going to depend on how the people in power use the authority. the reason the constitutional prohibited -- prohibitions exist and this is on the margins of that is so the government doesn't abuse its power in dealing -- in using this for political reasons, and if they never do that, then this is probably going to fly, i guess. and if they start using it for political reasons, then there will be a problem. but i think this is going to be -- this program is going to be widely supported by the american people and certainly even by many muslim-americans. as long as the government doesn't use it to oppress muslims as a group, most muslim americans don't want muslim terrorists either in the united states .

    >> but, i mean, doesn't that raise the question if that's the case, why don't we give the fbi this authority? why do we specifically say the fbi can't do this? i mean, the fbi certainly has its own checkered history with surveillance programs.

    >> exactly, they have their own checkered history.

    >> so does the nypd , in the '60s and '70s they were using the precursor of the intelligence division to spy a anti-war groups. it's a discussion that's been had at the federal level , it's not a discussion that's been had at the local level. and this -- the -- making the -- you know, making the wall more porous between what the cia can do overseas and domestically is a big aspect here, because if it is something we want from the cia , then why is it just happening in new york ? i mean, why don't we put -- why doesn't the cia direct the intelligence gathering of every police department ?

    >> i think it's a really important debate because we have a checkered past of using this information for political reasons as j. edgar hoover did and nixon did as president and others.

    >> matt apuzzo, thank you so much. it's a well-researched piece. people can read it at the associated press and draw their own conclusions. thanks a lot.

    >> thanks a lot for having


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