Exaggeration is often the tool of a disingenuous person, but when it comes to reporting, there seems to be no bounds. Case in point, the most recent article in the New York Times regarding the NYPD’s Counterterrorism program, “New York Police Recruit Muslims to be Informers.”
Leaving the facts behind, the reporter goes on a mission to expose what he claims is the improper questioning of individuals arrested and being held in jails. Specifically, he decries the singling out of a specific group of criminals, Muslims.
The article claims that law enforcement personnel changed their focus of questions to home in on a specific area, religion. The writer states, “They [NYPD] showed that religion had become a normal topic of police inquiry in the city’s holding cells and lockup facilities.”
A new technique of interrogation? I think not. As the former deputy inspector general of the New York State Department of Corrections, I can state emphatically that arrestees have been asked the question “what is your religion” for more than 40 years. It is a core part of the initial intake assessment of an individual about to be admitted to a jail. It goes part and parcel with height, weight, color of eyes, ethnicity, etc.
The writer wants the reader to believe that this type of questioning only began after 9/11.
Why? It goes along with the mantra that Muslims were being singled out arbitrarily by police and intelligence officials when it comes to crime. Not so. I doubt the reporter has ever really sat in on an intake interview of an arrestee. If he had, he would have seen the line of questioning of an arrestee / inmate is founded in the historical fundamental belief by cops, that whenever a crime is committed, either someone in jail did it, or knows who did it. In gathering intelligence on specific threat groups, be they, the Mafia, the Latin Kings, the Chinese Ghost Shadow Gangs, the Russian Mob, etc., you’re going to ask a specific group of people about a specific group of criminals, and radical Islamic terrorism is a form of criminal activity. My good friend John Cutter, former deputy chief of NYPD’s Intelligence Division, put it most succinctly when he said, “I know we’re the police department and we deal with crime, but terrorism is just a higher level of crime, and we have to know about it. If it’s in our midst, I need someone to investigate it.”
There are numerous examples of successful cases where terrorist acts were thwarted due to intelligence gathered from speaking to an individual in jail.
In the case of the Newburgh Four, now a cause célèbre for some, religion was core to identifying group leader James Cromartie.
Cromartie was a career criminal who had often changed his religious affiliation when he was arrested. Information obtained through a jail intelligence program led to the apprehension of the group before they could bomb Jewish synagogues or shoot down Air National Guard aircraft with Stinger missiles as they had planned.
In regard to whether the question of “what mosque do you attend?” is valid or harassing, it should be noted that several convicted terrorists had ties to specific mosques in the greater New York City area. El Sayyid Nosair, one of the architects of the first World Trade Center bombing, was in contact with those mosques while in both the city jail and Attica State prison.
Rashid Baz, the Brooklyn Bridge shooter, was spurred on to commit his terrorist act after attending the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge’s mosque and hearing a sermon encouraging the killing of Jewish civilians.
Edwin Lorenzo Lemmons a former New York inmate was arrested for illegal firearms possession by members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Florida after disembarking from a flight from Egypt. Authorities learned of his radicalization and tactical training he received in the Middle East through information directly provided by an individual who had recently been arrested.
Given examples like these, it would seem that the New York Times article overlooks the necessary importance of intelligence gathering and exaggerates to a fault the grievances of a few disgruntled arrestees.
This is another example yellow journalism. Akin to the previous AP articles that sought to diminish the effectiveness of the NYPD’s counterterrorism program and tarnish the reputation of the men and women who dedicated their lives to protecting the city against another attack by Islamic terrorists. In that case, the court saw through the exaggeration. Hopefully the public will as well.
Patrick Dunleavy is the former Deputy Inspector General for New York State Department of Corrections and author of The Fertile Soil of Jihad. He currently teaches a class on terrorism for the United States Military Special Operations School.