Because the rakers never received specialized training, their reports contained numerous errors. Sephardic Jews and Lebanese Christians were mistaken for Syrian Muslims.
The reports began looking the same to Berdecia. No matter how detailed, they never matured into criminal cases. If terrorist cells operated in New York, Berdecia wondered, why weren’t the police making arrests? That’s how they’d dismantled drug gangs in the Bronx. Gang members, like terrorists, were secretive, insular, and dangerous. Years earlier, when his son was born, his wife returned from the hospital with a five-person security detail because of threats from gangs Berdecia was investigating.
It nagged Berdecia to see his talented detectives sitting around eating kebabs and buying pastries, hoping to stumble onto something. If it was worth writing up a report, it was worth conducting an investigation. “It irritated me to send a lot of second-grade detectives and first-grade detectives to sit in coffee shops with nothing going on. If we hear something, then let’s do more proactive police work. Let’s run plates. Let’s follow guys.” But as the years passed under Berdecia’s supervision, the Demographics Unit never built a single case. “It was a bunch of bullshit,” Berdecia said.
In September 2009, the National Security Agency intercepted an e-mail from a taxi driver named Najibullah Zazi to an e-mail address linked to one of Al Qaeda’s most senior leaders. The message contained the line “the marriage is ready.”
Marriage and wedding were among Al Qaeda’s favorite code words for attacks, referring to the day that a suicide bomber met his brides, the maidens of the hereafter.
Trying to ascertain the scope of the plot, the NYPD searched the files of the Demographics Unit. Even though the rakers had canvassed Zazi’s neighborhood daily, and had even visited the travel agent where he bought his tickets between New York and Colorado, there was not a single piece of useful information. “There was nothing,” said Berdecia.
On August 9, President Obama, addressing the trove of new information about the NSA’s activities revealed by Edward Snowden, spoke about the need to strike the right balance between privacy and security. “Now, keep in mind that as a senator I expressed a healthy skepticism about these programs,” Obama said. “And as president, I’ve taken steps to make sure that they have strong oversight by all three branches of government and clear safeguards to prevent abuse and protect the rights of the American people. But, given the history of abuse by governments, it’s right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives.”
Whatever the shortcomings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act oversight system, at least there is, theoretically, a check on the agency’s activities. But in New York City, for Muslim citizens and activists of many stripes, there is no such outside system meant to safeguard their privacy. The NYPD conducts its oversight in-house. City Hall doesn’t review intelligence programs the way Congress does. Courts can step in to settle questions about constitutionality, but only if somebody finds out about programs that are designed to remain secret forever.
In 2010, the Demographics Unit was renamed the Zone Assessment Unit over fears about how the title would be perceived if it leaked out. But rakers still troll Muslim neighborhoods, filing an average of four new reports every day, searching for hot spots. The Muslim community is marbled with fear, afraid to speak openly because an informant could be lurking near.
Kelly is unapologetic. Like the department’s use of the tactic known as stop-and-frisk, raking is a tactic Kelly maintains is legal. He said the program is operating just as it always has. “Nothing” has changed, Kelly boasted to The Wall Street Journal earlier this year.
In many ways, Ray Kelly has been a remarkably successful commissioner—but when it mattered most, the Demographics Unit was a failure as a matter of police work. And now, the lawyers in the Handschu case have returned to court, arguing that Kelly and Cohen, in their effort to keep the city safe, have crossed constitutional lines. Regardless of the outcome, the NYPD’s programs are likely to join waterboarding, secret prisons, and NSA wiretapping as emblems of post-9/11 America, when security justified many practices that would not have been tolerated before.