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The never-ending criticism of the NYPD counterterrorism program

Reporters should stop embroidering the facts to fit their preconceived notions of truth

The NYPD’s program to capture terrorists has again made the news. This time two Pulitzer Prize winning Associated Press reporters, Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, have written (see here and here) a story that claims the NYPD hired a 19-year-old Muslim to help “create and capture” terrorists in the metro area.

Of course, the “create and capture” language — with the not-too-subtle suggestion of entrapment — is part of the article and whether or not their source’s story is accurate remains to be seen.

For the last several years, activist writers have maintained pressure on the NYPD for their counterterrorism program. Centered in part on the formation of the Demographics Unit, the city’s program has been responsible for learning the details about Muslim communities both in New York City and elsewhere in the tri-state area.

The purpose of the surveillance was to build a database to help identify areas where terrorists could spawn and find succor, and protect New Yorkers in the process. False criticisms have created an artificial narrative about NYPD’s effectiveness and fairness that will not mature the debate but only create a number of consequences that could leave New Yorkers at risk.

Breaking the News
The public first learned of the Demographics Unit after four Associated Press reporters — two of whom were Mr. Apuzzo and Mr. Goldman — broke the story in August of 2011. The reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for their work.

The revelations have led to a vigorous debate about the proper relationship between foreign and domestic intelligence operations (questioning the CIA’s role in establishing the Unit) and what the New York Times editorial board has described as the “constitutionally suspect” collection efforts on the Muslim community.

Unsurprisingly, the reporters’ criticisms may have been misleading, a point of view that the mainstream media has ignored.

According to Mitchell D. Silber (an author and a former Unit Director of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division), the series of award winning articles misrepresented the “scope, purpose, and rationale behind many of the NYPD Intelligence Division’s programs. They confuse events and policies in ways that are misleading and cast the tale they are telling in the worse possible light.” These four journalists are not the only ones that have made similar errors.

According to a CNN report, Thomas P. Galati, the commander of the NYPD Intelligence Unit, the department’s eight-member Demographics Unit did not produce any lead associated with any terrorist plot for the past six years.

Of course, that wasn’t the purpose of the unit, despite the implications in the CNN report. However, Galati went on to note that some of the gathered information was valuable in focusing investigations, which was its intended purpose. Mr. Galati, who was honored by the Anti-Defamation League in 2011, made these comments during a recently unsealed deposition in a civil matter.

Political Activism in the Press
The real issue has been whether or not the existence of the Demographics Unit violated the Handschu Guidelines, which in essence have prevented the NYPD from investigating an individual’s constitutionally-protected political activity without an articulable suspicion of criminal activity.

What is left out of most reporting has been that after 9/11 the NYPD went to a federal court and had the agreement modified so they could more-effectively prevent a terrorist act and not just investigate the crime after the fact.

On July 10, ProPublica contributor Justin Elliott published what he likely believes to be a new and scathing critique of the NYPD’s counterterrorism program.  Mr. Elliott specifically chastises Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly as those responsible for promoting the lie that the NYPD thwarted fourteen terrorist attacks on the city.

Mr. Elliott, an award-winning political activist, carefully claims that the NYPD “...does not appear (emphasis mine) to have played a major role in breaking up most of the alleged plots on the list. In several cases, it played no role at all.”

Unfortunately, the New York City website that Mr. Elliott used to partially support his charges is no longer available. However, the information on the site did not state the NYPD thwarted the fourteen plots. Instead, the website listed fourteen known plots against New York City that were prevented primarily by good law enforcement practices, not just the NYPD. Even NYPD supporters make a similar mistake.

In other words, Mr. Elliott, Mayor Bloomberg, and the AP reports (Commissioner Kelly's comments are more circumspect) may be gingering the facts surrounding the Demographics Unit and NYPD counterterrorism activities for their own purposes. The real debate should be about the relationship between domestic and foreign intelligence collection. Unfortunately this important issue has been lost in the rhetoric.

The public, apparently, for the time being is unconcerned. Instead of trying to shape opinion, reporters should inform the public.

In some media quarters the lemming rush toward NYPD criticism could backfire. Just like the Vietnam protest movement may have prolonged the war by alienating the very people it should have persuaded (see Adam Garfinkle’s excellent book Telltale Hearts), over-the-top criticisms and outright falsehoods could delay a more useful debate on the NYPD’s counterterrorism program. Reporters should stop embroidering the facts to fit their preconceived notions of truth.

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