The rakers were in mosques too, listening in on imams and congregants.
“A mosque is different than a church or a temple,” said a former senior NYPD official involved in the effort. “It plays a bigger role in society and its day-to-day activities. They pray five times a day. They’re there all the time. If something bad is going to happen, they’re going to hear about it in the mosques. It’s not as sinister as it sounds. We’re just going into the mosques. We just want to know what they’re saying.”
Sanchez, still on the CIA’s payroll, was the architect of the Demographics Unit, reading the reports and coaching police on how to improve their tactics. Their daily dispatches were compiled into bound color folders that lined the bookshelves in Cohen’s office. Mosques and religious schools were catalogued and hot spots mapped for every precinct.
Surveillance turned out to be habit-forming. Cohen and Sanchez’s efforts also reached beyond the Muslim community. Undercover officers traveled the country, keeping tabs on liberal protest groups like Time’s Up and the Friends of Brad Will. Police infiltrated demonstrations and collected information about antiwar groups and those that marched against police brutality. Detectives monitored activist websites and copied the contents into police files, including one memo in 2008 for Kelly that reported the contents of a website about a group of women organizing a boycott to protest the police shooting of Sean Bell, an unarmed black man killed the morning before his wedding: “This boycott was set for May 11, 2008 (Mother’s Day) there will be NO shopping for cards, flowers, clothing, shoes or dining out. Spend time with Mom at home, serve her dinner, or buy her flowers from a black-owned business. We can be effective if we unite in the name of our children.”
Police collected the phone numbers and e-mail addresses from the website. One was for Agnes Johnson, a longtime activist based in the Bronx. “We were women and mothers who said, ‘We’re going to hold our money in our pocketbooks,’ ” Johnson recalled years later. “That’s all we called for.”
Confirmation that the activities of the Demographics Unit went far beyond what federal agencies were permitted to do was provided by the FBI itself. Once, Sanchez tried to peddle the Demographics reports to the FBI. But when Bureau lawyers in New York learned about the reports, they refused. The Demographics detectives, the FBI concluded, were effectively acting as undercover officers, targeting businesses without cause and collecting information related to politics and religion. Accepting the NYPD’s reports would violate FBI rules.
Cohen told his officers the FBI had its rules and the NYPD had its own. He was no longer constrained by the politicians. The NYPD was governed by the City Council, which had effectively given Kelly carte blanche to run the department as he saw fit.
In the fall of 2005, a senior CIA officer named Margaret Henoch attended a briefing with Sanchez and other NYPD officials. The meeting was a wide-ranging discussion of the NYPD’s new capabilities, including its Demographics Unit.
Henoch had a reputation as a skeptic. During the run-up to the Iraq War, when CIA analysts concluded that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, they put a lot of stock in statements by an Iraqi defector code-named Curveball. Henoch was one of the agency’s most vocal critics of Curveball’s reliability. She said the agency had fallen in love with its own analysis and hadn’t conducted a dispassionate review. By the time Henoch was proved right, the U.S. was stuck in the quagmire of Iraq.
Sitting with the NYPD, she felt a similar unease. She didn’t see how the Demographics reports could be used to draw conclusions. “I think this is a really impressive collection of what’s where, but I don’t understand how it helps you,” Henoch told the NYPD brass. If it was useful, she figured, maybe the CIA could replicate it. But she didn’t understand how collecting troves of information on local businesses and religious affiliations helped find terrorists.
She asked if there was some success story that summed up the program’s usefulness in its first two years. When she didn’t get an answer, she assumed that the NYPD was being coy with a potential rival. Even in the post-9/11 era, intelligence agencies often jealously guarded their secrets.
“I figured they were just lying to me,” Henoch recalled. It did not occur to her that there might not be any stories to tell.
To Henoch, the project seemed like a huge waste of time, and she was stunned that it was legal. But she figured that the NYPD wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t.