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The NYPD Division of Un-American Activities

Sanchez told colleagues that he had borrowed the idea from Israeli methods of controlling the military-occupied West Bank, the swath of land captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War. But the proposal ignored some important differences between the U.S. and Israel. Brooklyn and Queens, for instance, were not occupied territories or disputed land. There was no security wall being erected in New York City. And, where Muslims are concerned, no one would choose Israel as a model of civil liberties.

Nevertheless, Cohen liked the idea. He compared it to raking an extinguished fire pit. Most coals would be harmless and gray. Rake them carefully, and you might find an ember—a hot spot waiting to catch. This was the genesis of a secret police squad, which came to be called the Demographics Unit. Documents related to this new unit were stamped NYPD SECRET. Even the City Council, Congress, and the White House—the people paying the bills—weren’t told about it.

The NYPD had last been involved in such surveillance activities during the sixties, when there was an NYPD “extremist desk” to watch antiwar groups and a “black desk” to investigate African-Americans. Police maintained hundreds of thousands of case files and more than a million index cards containing names of citizens whose activities were deemed suspicious.

In 1971, civil-rights lawyers sued the NYPD. The plaintiffs represented a grab bag of the New Left, including Black Panthers, gay-rights advocates, and well-known figures like Abbie Hoffman. One young man, Stephen Rohde, sued because when he applied for admission to the New York bar, he was asked whether he’d ever opposed the Vietnam War. It turned out he had once signed a petition in a basement at Columbia University, and his name ended up in a police file.

After contesting the suit for more than a decade, the city settled in 1985 and agreed to new rules known as the Handschu guidelines, named for Barbara Handschu, a lawyer and activist who’d been the first plaintiff. The guidelines stated that police could investigate constitutionally protected activities only when they had specific information that a crime was being committed or was imminent. Undercover officers could be used only when they were essential to a case, not as a way to keep tabs on groups that might be up to no good. Police were prohibited from building dossiers on people or keeping their names in files without specific evidence of crimes.

But the activities that Sanchez and Cohen were proposing would not have been permitted under the Handschu guidelines. So, on September 12, 2002, Cohen filed a 23-page document in federal court asking a judge to throw out the guidelines and give his officers more leeway.

Cohen insisted that the world had changed since Al Qaeda attacked America, and the NYPD needed to change with it. “These changes were not envisioned when the Handschu guidelines were agreed upon,” he wrote, “and their continuation dangerously limits the ability of the NYPD to protect the people it is sworn to serve.”

Cohen painted a frightening picture of a nation—and a city—under siege from enemies within. “They escape detection by blending into American society. They may own homes, live in communities with families, belong to religious or social organizations, and attend educational institutions,” he wrote. “They typically display enormous patience, often waiting years until the components of their plans are perfectly aligned.”

He argued that America’s freedoms of movement, privacy, and association gave terrorists an advantage, one that left U.S. citizens painfully exposed. “The freedom of our society,” Cohen wrote, “has also made it possible for terrorist organizations to maintain U.S.-based activities.”

Inside the NYPD, the document was regarded as a masterwork and the foundation for everything the department would build subsequently. It was part autobiography, part history, and part ideology. One senior NYPD official took to calling it Cohen’s Mein Kampf.

The judge presiding over the Handschu case, Charles Haight, gave Cohen’s words great weight. The original settlement, the judge ruled, “addressed different perils in a different time.” Haight did away with the requirement that the NYPD launch investigations only when it had specific evidence that a crime was being committed. And he eliminated the rule that police could use undercover officers in political investigations only when they were essential.

Most important for the secretly planned Demographics Unit, Haight ruled: “For the purpose of detecting or preventing terrorist activities, the NYPD is authorized to visit any place and attend any event that is open to the public on the same terms and conditions as members of the public generally.”

The only caveat: Police couldn’t document and keep any information from these visits unless it related to potential criminal or terrorist activity.