A group of American intelligence officers were conducting cross-border reconnaissance on ethnic and religious minority groups when their covert hide site was discovered by a local merchant. The merchant then contacted local security forces, causing a minor rift in diplomatic relations and shedding light on an unlawful surveillance program. While this incident seems like a probable scenario along the Afghan-Pakistan border, this actually occurred in 2009 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division has grown rapidly in both size and scope since September 11 2001, but at what point could it be said to have overstepped its authority?
The above incident occurred when a building superintendent went to inspect a tenancy in New Brunswick in June of 2009, and discovered surveillance equipment and terrorist literature in one of his apartments. Fearing that he had stumbled onto an aspiring terror cell he contacted the local police. The local police department and the FBI were called in, only to find that the apartment was being used covertly by officers in the NYPD’s Intelligence Division, without the consultation of the New Jersey authorities.
Prior to September 11th, the Intelligence Division focused primarily on drugs and gangs, and was not at all equipped to foil terror plots. They division was at this point mostly made up of what were essentially chauffeurs, driving official vehicles as part of visiting dignitaries’ security convoys. Then NYPD Police commissioner Raymond Kelly said “[It] was in essence an escort service. They handled dignitaries and bigwigs when they came into town. It was an intelligence service in name only.” The revamp didn’t happen until early 2002, when a retired Marine General as well as a former high ranking CIA official named David Cohen were hired to rebuild the Intelligence Division and establish the Counter Terrorism Bureau. The new Division was tasked with combating terrorism because, as then Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said, “It’s something we have to do ourselves.” The NYPD essentially envisioned its own in-house version of both the FBI and CIA and built it from the ground up, starting with a Global Intelligence Room that monitors foreign broadcasts, has its own backup generator and is covered in ballistic Sheetrock. This facility is staffed 24/7 by NYPD analysts, typically with advanced degrees in International Relations or prior experience with federal intelligence agencies.
During this initial period another high ranking CIA official, named Larry Sanchez, was essentially embedded within the NYPD, even going so far as sending an NYPD detective to the ‘Farm,’ the CIA’s training facility, where the detective was taught cutting-edge covert surveillance techniques to bring back to New York. Sanchez’s tenure at the NYPD is marked by the creation of the controversial Demographics Unit. Its mission was to eavesdrop on ethnic ‘hot spots’ in New York and in New Jersey, engaging in illegal spying of Muslim communities in New York and New Jersey by planting undercover officers in mosques; a previous ban on such profile-driven tactics having been loosened after 9/11. Whilst on the CIA payroll, the NYPD used an intelligence officer to apply counterinsurgency tactics the Agency had used in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has been criticized as a clear violation of Executive Order 12333, which bans domestic surveillance and investigation operations by the CIA.
In 2011, the CIA inspector general found cases where Agency analysts provided direct assistance to local police and that direct collaboration of this type was rife with “irregular personnel practices” with “inadequate direction and control” by Agency minders. Sanchez himself was forced into retiring from the CIA due to the vague nature of his role, however immediately after his retirement he went to work directly for the NYPD. In another case, the NYPD paid a six figure salary to a former CIA official to be the department’s ‘scholar-in-residence’ by forming its own non-profit, named the NYPD Counter-Terrorism Foundation, to pay for his salary. To date, the Foundation has not paid for any other initiatives nor does it appear to remain active; it appears that it was solely created to directly hire one former intelligence operative into the NYPD without going through any of the official hiring processes associated with a senior post of this nature.
The Foundation website suggests that in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, NYPD Intelligence Officers were on site in minutes, and sent timely intelligence to police headquarters that changed the deployment posture of officers and led to the development of a new strategy in days.
Despite existing infrastructure for federal, state and local law enforcement to share intelligence and prosecute terrorism related crimes, it appears that the NYPD is more than willing to go out on its own when it comes to terrorism. The Intelligence Division seems content to prosecute terrorism related crimes without FBI assistance nor with the clout of federal anti-terrorism laws, relying on an obscure state terrorism law that sat unused for nearly a decade.
The NYPD’s actions have also caused controversy in the international community. In 2007, the Intelligence Division detained an Iranian delegation at JFK airport against the wishes of the US Secret Service, the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service and the Port Authority Police. Despite having prepared for the meeting beforehand and having conducted an on-site run-through, the NYPD defied the other cooperating agencies and conducted 40 minutes of additional screening in violation of established diplomatic protocol. The delegation departed the airport only after the Chief of the Port Authority Police made a phone call to the NYPD Department Chief.
Perhaps most controversial is the NYPD’s presence in the field of overseas intelligence gathering. The International Liaison Program (ILP) is now active in 13 cities around the world, with police officers posted to cities such as Tel Aviv, Singapore and London with offices, pay and rent paid for by the New York City Police Foundation; another non-profit with private donors. Ostensibly, the purpose of the program is so that the NYPD can be rapidly sent to the scene of a terror attack to send forensic information back to New York so that new countermeasures can be developed. The Foundation website suggests that in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, NYPD Intelligence Officers were on site in minutes, and sent timely intelligence to police headquarters that changed the deployment posture of officers and led to the development of a new strategy in days.
However, it seems that the reality on the ground reality is very different. NYPD officers are not overseas in any official capacity, instead traveling on tourist visas, purposely living and working far from US embassies, lacking the clearance and equipment to either access or send sensitive information. The Bali attacks in 2005 saw Singapore stationed ILP detectives arriving at the bomb site, showing their badges and demanding access. When confronted by the US Embassy’s regional security officer, the NYPD officers claimed they were under orders to go to the bombing scene. That same year, NYPD Intelligence officers also arrived unannounced at the scene of the London bombings, again demanding to be let onto the crime scene. Scotland Yard demonstrated little patience for the NYPD, and threatened to expel all American law enforcement officers, even those who had existing authority to be there. While this may seem more of a diplomatic annoyance, it undermines essential international security partnerships and antagonizes local law enforcement.
An excerpt from the NYPD’s mission statement is “working in partnership with the community to enforce the law, preserve peace, reduce fear, and maintain order“, however by changing the nature of policing and overstepping the legal scope of their mission, NYPD’s Intelligence Division has altered the security landscape. Michael Bloomberg during his time as the Mayor of New York bragged “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world.” The New York Police Department’s sworn officers do outnumber many nation’s armies and have capabilities that are traditionally the preserve of the military, such as anti-aircraft systems, while members of the NYPD’s elite Hercules counter-terrorism teams are equipped with military-grade body armor and submachine guns. The NYPD has the resources to marshal a level of force that most nation states would dream of, which is understandable given the city’s tragic history at the hands of terrorists. Despite this, it could be argued that through its efforts to take a more proactive and international role, the NYPD has failed its own mission by acting without paying heed to the community at large, both at home and abroad.
Charlie Song is former U.S. Army Infantry NCO and Officer turned geopolitical risk expert in the private sector, with a focus on the Asia Pacific region, the Korean peninsula and U.S. government affairs.
Photo credit: Andrea Booher / FEMA photo library