NYC Republican Mayoral Candidate Defends NYPD Muslim Spying

Joe Lhota attacks the Associated Press while defending the controversial program in a BuzzFeed interview.

Republican Mayoral candidate Joe Lhota Keith Bedford / Reuters

New York City Republican mayoral hopeful Joe Lhota defended the NYPD’s broad surveillance of Muslims and attacked the Associated Press’ Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting during a wide-ranging interview with BuzzFeed Tuesday.

Lhota dismissed the AP’s reporting as based on “supposition” and “missing a big point.” Lhota also denied, despite reports based on documents and sources, that the NYPD had ever spied on a Muslim establishment without following a target.

“When you look at the facts they don’t willy-nilly go there because of the people there,” Lhota said. “I have yet to see any place where they have gone where there was not at least one, if not two people that they were focused on that brought them to that mosque. The mosque didn’t come first.”

The AP reported in August that the NYPD secretly labeled entire mosques as terrorist organizations, using the designation to allow informants to record sermons and spy on imams. Many times, sermons were recorded without evidence of any crimes, according to the report. The labeling of mosques as terrorist organizations meant anyone attending services at mosque could be treated as potential subject for investigation and surveillance.

“It’s almost like a chicken-and-egg question,” Lhota said. “You can’t then say, well they’re talking to everyone in a restaurant. Well what brought them to the restaurant? It was a target and they’re allowed to focus on targets. And that’s what they’re doing and, I think, ya know, there’s no other evidence to that. The interpretation of two reporters with a lot of unsubstantiated claims doesn’t work for me. It really doesn’t.

The NYPD did, however, spy on establishments like restaurants without a target to surveil, according to the documents published by the AP’s Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo. Through a task force known as the the Demographics Unit, a part of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division, a system of “rakers” would attend establishments owned by Muslims, usually to feel a local businesses out and write reports on goings-on. If a patron, business owner, or employee mentioned reading radical literature, it would find its way into a report. If a patron spoke sympathetically about United States enemies, it would probably make its way into a report.

Lhota added such behavior was not different from tactics already employed by the FBI, using the example of the Boston bombing to explain why such information gathered could be useful alluding at one point to the Zazi plot to bomb the New York City subway system. Lhota also said they were similar tactics employed in the fight against organized crime.

But what Lhota may not have realized in referencing the Boston bombing and the Zazi plot was the NYPD had already faced their test, and failed with Zazi. When the NYPD needed their clandestine program’s data most, it didn’t come through. The Department was a non-factor in stopping of Zazi, with one of its sources actually tipping off Zazi to the investigation, infuriating the FBI. The source was later deported.

Lhota said the AP and its reporters said such programs were unconstitutional, but they write in their book’s epilogue “the NYPD says it’s all been legal. And it might be right.” Like Lhota, Goldman and Apuzzo cite the Handschu agreement and Justice Department not opening a civil rights investigation.

The NYPD’s spying reportedly never led to a single lead or terrorism case.

The following is a transcript of the spying portion of BuzzFeed’s interview with Lhota:

What do you think of the NYPD spying on Muslims?

Joe Lhota: I think they, um, and I’ve read as much as I can about why the AP reporters….I think they’re missing a very big point.The NYPD in my experience, is not spying on mosques, they’re spying on individuals who happen to be at a mosque and they’ll continue spying on them when they leave the mosque. And spying is too strong a word, observing is probably the more appropriate word. They’re allowed to do that in accordance with the Handschu Agreement, which is signed with the federal government and nowhere has anybody said that the NYPD is violating the agreement that was signed with the federal government and then re-upped again in 2002 to include terrorists and terrorist activities. And then it went to court in ‘07, or ‘08, and it was upheld by the federal judges as being the right one. Look, I don’t believe for one second that they’re spying on the building and the people in the building. They’re spying on the people who may be attending a service, but when they leave they’re leaving with those people, and it’s a distinction that has a significant difference.

There is this sort of broad nature to it. With the raking, they’re sending people into establishments and having them talk to people and feel things out and write reports and put them in a database and these are people who have not done anything wrong. Do you—-

JL: Do you think they just do that, they select a building because they see it in the street?

Well, no, they select the building because the people are Muslim.

JL: That’s absolutely not true.That’s just not true. That’s absolutely not true.

That was reported in the book,

JL: I know, but when you look at the facts they don’t willy-nilly go there because of the people there. I have yet to see any place where they have gone where there wasn’t at least one, if not two people that they were focused on that brought them to that mosque. The mosque didn’t come first.

Not just mosques, restaurants, establishments…

JL: I understand that. It’s almost like a chicken-and-egg question. You can’t then say well they’re talking to everyone in a restaurant. Well what brought them to the restaurant. It was a target and they’re allowed to focus on targets. And that’s what they’re doing and, I think, ya know, there’s no other evidence to that. The interpretation of two reporters with a lot of unsubstantiated claims doesn’t work for me. It really doesn’t. I don’t believe for one second — let me put it another way. If the federal government thought that the NYPD was doing something in violation of the law they’ be all over the NYPD. I don’t believe for one second that the United States government would allow what these two AP reporters are reporting to continue. They have not, they are not and ya know, whatever they’ve done to investigate it has led them to believe that everything is being done in accordance with the Handschu Agreement.

So you’re saying if it’s legal, you think it’s okay then?

JL: Um, if it’s legal is it okay? Is this a morality question you’re asking me?

It could be. What I’m hearing from you is not what I read in any of the AP reporter’s book or all of AP stories. What I had read is different from what you are telling me so. So your contention is that the AP reporters were wrong?

JL: Supposition, they’re not based on fact. They’re based on supposition. They’ve come to the conclusion that the investigation work being done by the NYPD is in violation of the Constitution. If it was, do you not believe that the Obama Administration would be all over the NYPD?

They have specific documents with this program where they picked out like nationalities of interest Yemenis, Egyptians. They picked out cafes not because it was individual but because it was that nationality because that’s a region where there’s terrorism and then they sent in undercover agents to hang out and talk to people. That’s fine in your book?

JL: The FBI does the same thing. The FBI does it from the point of view if all of a sudden, I’ll make up a hypothetical, if all of sudden, I’m Czech so I’ll use Lhota’s Czech. Let’s say that there was a Czech terrorist who came to this country. The first question you’re going to ask is ‘where will he go?’ He’ll go to a community where there are the Czechs. Are there any favorite restaurants in those communities, are there bars, are there places? Do we have any confidential informers that are in those bars and in those places? Is this any different from what we did when we dealt with any type of organized crime here in this country or in the City of New York? It’s not. It’s exactly the same roadmap that’s being used, and quite honestly it’s what we need. And that’s why, the issues that were in part of the AP is that they were categorizing neighborhoods. Look I know instinctively by my own experience of being a New York that if I was looking for someone of Russian descent one of the first places I would go would be Brighton Beach. If I was looking for someone who was, ya know, from Peru we now have a huge Peruvian community in Ozone Park. If I was looking for Mexicans I would go to Red Hook because that’s where they predominately are.

By that logic we’re just kind of looking for Arabs and looking for Muslims?

JL: But we’re not, we’re not, we’re categorizing every area of terrorists. Not all terrorists are Middle Eastern. If you think that you’re being very myopic. We’re doing it from the point of view that we need to make sure New Yorkers stay safe. If we get information that someone has left some part of the world and there target is the New York City subway system, when they get here where are they gonna go? Where is a place that they will go. And believe me it’s just to be prepared. It’s not about spying on people. What they did was catalog neighborhoods here and all over the country. We have ethnic Serbians that live in Austin, Texas. I may know too much about this stuff because I’ve been involved in this type of work for a long long period.

What would you know from being involved in it, that didn’t come out in the AP reports, that you think would maybe make a different light on it?

JL: Who is the target and who were they following and how did it lead to that location. That’s the most important part and you’ll never get that from any law enforcement person because they’ll lose their job.

But I feel like you just said two different things, one is to be prepared it makes sense to have informants in Yemeni cafes because of al-Qaeda is a big deal and they could be Yemeni terrorists and then you also said this is about specific people and specific leads.

JL: Well they don’t go the mosque and say we’re gonna investigate the mosque. They follow people who brought them to the mosque, it’s part of the original question. Let’s back up for a second and follow what happened in Boston during the marathon two homegrown terrorists, who had been overseas, had been investigated by the FBI and the FBI asked them were you a terrorist and they said no, so they dropped the case. They never discussed it with the Boston Police Department. Everything that happened in the Boston Police Department started when the bombs went off and there absolutely was no coordination. Who are they, where were they? And they were able to piece it together a few days later by looking at cameras on one of the department stores, Lord and Taylor. But it requires that if you were looking for, ya know, two, and I think in both cases they were Serbian, but if you were looking for two Serbians who had been investigated before, not sharing that information with local enforcement, which has required the New York City Police Department to go out of its way to collect its own data so that it can do its job and protect the city of New York. What is it 16 separate terrorist incidents in the City of New York that they’ve been able to stop, 16 documented. I like to go on the subway everyday and I like to know that I feel safe now. And I don’t believe for a second that the New York City Police Department is violating anybody’s Constitutional rights. Because I know we have a check and balance system in this country. If they were the FBI would notify the Justice Department. The Justice Department would come down.

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