One idea was to use informants to trawl local mosques and monitor imams to watch for signs of radicalization. Though the NYPD denies the term exists, several former officials said the informants were known as “mosque crawlers.” They would listen in mosques and report back to their handlers.
It was the CIA that first developed that idea overseas and came up with the name. The NYPD program was a version of that effort, according to former CIA officials who were familiar with it. Like many interviewed about the NYPD, they insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss intelligence programs.
Former senior CIA officials said the mosque crawlers were ineffective.
In New York, however, the program persisted. With help from the mosque crawlers and secret NYPD squads, documents show, police intelligence analysts scrutinized every mosque in and around the city and infiltrated dozens. The monitoring of imams included even those who worked closely with police and preached against violence.
These days, however, fewer imams are under investigation, an official said.
The NYPD has pledged to do all it can to prevent terrorism. So when a new intelligence program is conceived, several current and former officials said, there is little discussion of its prospects for success.
NYPD intelligence chief David Cohen, a former top CIA official, was asked about that in September 2005 during a deposition in a lawsuit over the department’s policy of randomly searching the bags of subway riders. Civil rights lawyers asked how police knew whether a program deterred terrorism.
“If it works against them, then it works for us,” Cohen replied. “That is deterrent to one degree or other.”
Cohen was asked, How do you know it works? Is there some police methodology?
“I never bothered to look,” Cohen said. “It doesn’t exist, as far as I could tell.”
At times, police officials themselves have raised concerns about intelligence-gathering programs. In about 2008, for instance, police began monitoring everyone in the city who legally changed names. Anyone who might be a Muslim convert or appeared to be Americanizing his or her name was investigated and personal information was put into police databases.
Current and former officials say it produced no results. Police still receive the list of names of people who change their names, court officials said. But one official said the program is on hold while its effectiveness is evaluated.
For example, the NYPD began the “Moroccan Initiative,” a secret program that chronicled Moroccan neighborhoods, after suicide bombings killed 45 people in the Moroccan city of Casablanca in 2003, and after Moroccan terrorists were linked to the 2005 train bombing in Madrid. New York police put people, including U.S. citizens, under surveillance and catalogued where they ate, worked and prayed.
“What we were doing is following leads,” Kelly told City Council members during an October hearing when asked about that program. “The Moroccan issue that was mentioned had to do with a specific investigation.”