Friday, September 02, 2011

Looking for Frank Church

William Fisher

When I read the brilliant report by the Associated Press about the cozy and very secret relationship between the New York City Police Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, I had a distinct but inchoate feeling of déjà vu.

Seems that after 9/11, the NYPD decided it couldn’t depend on the Feds -- the FBI, that is -- as their sole source of intelligence. So they turned to the CIA. And that initial contact blossomed into a robust partnership. CIA operatives were given leaves of absence to work with the NYPD. New York cops were sent to Langley to train. A special unit was setup within the NYPD. It was kept largely secret from all but a handful of the most senior officials. It was also not revealed to the FBI, which is the agency mandated to service counter-terrorism needs within the US.

Together, officers from the new unit recruited a network of informants – mostly immigrants from each of the important countries of the Middle East. These undercover officers were to become familiar figures in the New York neighborhoods that were home to significant numbers of Muslim Americans. They were to “rake the coals” for information; they were known internally as “rakers.”

They were to hang out at neighborhood cafes, attend local mosques, reporting back to NYPD headquarters what the imams were saying. If someone voiced approval for the killing of an American soldier on television in a bar or restaurant, that too was sent back to the NYPD. Other “hot spots” might be an ethnic book store or a beauty supply store selling chemicals used for making bombs. Or a hawala, a broker that transfers money around the world with little documentation. Undercover officers might visit an Internet cafe and look at the browsing history on a computer, a former police official involved in the program said. If it revealed visits to radical websites, the cafe might be deemed a hot spot.

And if any of this produced a lead that was out of the NYPD’s jurisdiction, it simply followed the lead to wherever it went. New Jersey seemed to be a favorite venue. And, of course, neither local nor state police in that state had any inkling they were there.

The civil liberties community was up in arms about this unusual collaboration. It had all the signs of entrapment. And racial profiling. And violation of citizens’ First Amendment rights.

As I processed all this information, a picture of Frank Church formed in my mind. Frank Church was a U.S. Senator from Idaho from the late 50s to the early 80s. He Church gained national prominence during his service in the Senate through his chairmanship of the Church Committees, which conducted extensive hearings investigating extra-legal FBI and CIA intelligence-gathering and covert operations.

The Church Committee hearings laid the groundwork for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.

Then I turned to Michael Ratner, an Internet friend and President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, to refresh my memory. Here’s what he said:

“In the 70s, the congressional Church committee hearings exposed CIA domestic spying and infiltration of peaceful groups. The public was outraged. That anger aroused hope that the CIA's political police role would end. After all, it was illegal then and it's illegal today.”

He went on: “For good reason. The CIA is trained in unlawful acts; it knows no law and the constitution is meaningless to its actions. The CIA should not operate even overseas much less on a domestic population. Stalin had his KGB; the United States and now NYC has its CIA. NYC should establish itself as a CIA-free zone.”

Well, that’s a mouthful.

But not all that different from other authorities whose views I trust.

I spoke to Chip Pitts, a law professor and board/executive committee member of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. He told me: “The New York City Police Department’s illegal (and trust-destroying) profiling is matched only by the CIA’s illegal domestic spying. With the NYPD now roaming the nation and the world unchecked in its quest to prevent terrorism, and the CIA encroaching not only on foreign military operations and drone attacks but also domestic policing, it is past time to ask whether there are any limits at all to the ambitions and blatant boundary crossing by these increasingly unaccountable organs of government.”

And historian Lawrence Davidson of West Chester University. He said:

“As to the CIA, NYPD, FBI, etc. I think that they have all begun to go rogue. Of course, ‘begun’ is a relative term. All these ‘police’ or ‘intelligence’ agencies constantly walk a thin line between legality and illegality. And, predictably, when something happens to allegedly justify their crossing the line, they do (sometimes gleefully). The courts usually ok the process after the fact. That is what is happening now. Eventually, these agencies will go a bit too far -- which usually entails ruining the lives of innocent people -- and then there will be an expose and they will retreat a bit, until the next time. Right now the law is being tossed out the window.”

And Kathy Manley, an attorney and Vice President of Capitol Region Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. She told me: “This is just one more in a long line of revelations which shows that this country is turning into a police state. The ‘security’ apparatus is completely out of control and beholden to no one. Of course NYPD shouldn't be operating outside of its jurisdiction and shouldn't be sending people into mosques without any factual predicate - the fact that they are denying it despite clear evidence shows they know it's illegal!”

There has been zero oversight of this collaboration. Not Federal, Not State. Not City. The CIA probably violated its charter by getting involved in a domestic operation. And the NYPD has likely broken laws dealing with racial profiling, privacy, and religious freedom.

There needs to be an investigation – and before this CIA-NYPD romance goes any further.

Senator Church, where are you when we need you?