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Intel's Mitchell Silber: Blind to the Facts

June 4, 2012

No good can come from criticizing a Pulitzer Prize-winning series. Mitchell Silber, the just departed NYPD civilian director of “Intel Analysis,” is living proof.

For the past couple of weeks, Silber has been on a tear, trying to discredit the Associated Press’s series that exposed the NYPD’s secret, pervasive, and legally troublesome spying on Muslims, winning journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize.

The AP series, and work by this column, found that the NYPD’s Intelligence Division, with little or no evidence of wrongdoing, placed entire Muslim communities under scrutiny — infiltrating mosques, Muslim student groups and non-governmental organizations, while sometimes operating far outside its geographical jurisdiction.

Silber’s attempts to refute the AP’s work has appeared in Commentary Magazine and the New York Post, one outfit more reactionary than the other.

The Post chimed in with its own editorial last week: “Mitchell Silber’s tale is a marvelous one — but his purpose in the telling was not to entertain. It was to refute distortions that portray the department as cavalierly trampling civil rights.”

Well, let’s see about that, readers.

In fact, the NYPD’s own Intelligence Division documents refute just about everything Silber claims.

Silber stated flatly that the NYPD “did not conduct blanket ongoing surveillance of communities.”

He claimed that “only public locations were visited. Doing so was perfectly within the purview of the NYPD; the court-written Handschu guidelines say: ‘The NYPD is authorized to visit any place and attend any event that is open to the public.’”

Some of Silber’s complaints are petty. He noted that the Intelligence Division’s Demographic Unit dispatched plainclothes officers to minority neighborhoods, not undercovers as the AP said.

“Undercovers are provided with fake identities and misrepresent who they are: plainclothes officers of the Demographics Unit carried no false ID and didn’t purport to be anyone in particular.” Silber termed this “a blatant error on the AP’s part.”

Addressing the AP’s claim that police had used informants to monitor sermons in mosques, Silber wrote that “undercover officers and confidential informants don’t enter a mosque unless following upon a lead vetted by Handschu” — meaning that there must be suspicions of illegal activity.

Silber also denied that the police department kept files on individuals. “No files about particular individuals were created,” he wrote.

Defending the work of the Demographics Unit, he called it “critical in identifying the Islamic Books and Tapes bookstore in Brooklyn as a venue for radicalization.” Information that the Demographics Unit collected about the store, he wrote, “helped thwart a 2004 plot against the Herald Square subway station.”

“I know all this to be true,” wrote Silber, “because I worked directly for the deputy commissioner of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division for the last seven years — the last four [his final day was May 31] as his director of intelligence analysis, overseeing all the city’s terrorism investigations.”

Well, NYPD Confidential also knows a certain truth: that the AP relied on the NYPD’s own Intelligence Division documents to confirm the details and the extent of the spying on Muslims.

After the AP’s first story last August, this column obtained many of those same Intelligence Division documents.

One particularly informative one was the 112-page “NYPD Intelligence Division Strategic Posture 2006,” (excerpts from which are presented on this site so readers can determine the truth for themselves.)

The monitoring that it outlined was so sweeping that, to this reporter, it resembled files of the former Communist East German secret police: the Stasi. [See NYPD Confidential, Sept. 5, 2011].

Among the document’s revelations:

The NYPD’s Demographics Unit — which NYPD spokesman Paul Browne initially denied existed — had compiled information on 250 mosques, 12 Islamic schools, 31 Muslim student associations, 263 places it called “ethnic hotspots,” such as business and restaurants , as well as 138 “persons of interest.”

Although Silber and others in the NYPD have maintained that the police monitored only the websites of Muslim Student Associations, the document revealed that the department had sent undercover detectives to spy on Muslim student groups at two city colleges — Brooklyn and Baruch.

While Silber said that police visited only public places, this document revealed that the NYPD spied on 10 Muslim non-governmental organizations with undercovers, informants, or detectives from the Joint Terrorist Task Force.

Leonard Levitt's new book, NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country's Greatest Police Force, will be out in stores July 21. Preorder it today by clicking on the book at right.

Other public places that the NYPD visited were mosques. On the surface, this is understandable, considering that, in his sermons at a New Jersey mosque, the blind sheikh, Omar Abdel-Rahman, encouraged the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the subsequently foiled bombing plot of city landmarks.

Silber neglected to say that the police singled out 53 mosques, four Islamic schools and seven Muslim Student Associations as institutions “of concern,” according to the NYPD Intelligence Division Strategic Posture 2006.

Nor did Silber mention that this same document stated that at least 32 mosques were infiltrated, either by undercover officers, informants, or both.

Of the NYPD’s listed “tier one mosques of concern,” this document said that the NYPD had infiltrated them with undercovers, informants and “demographics.” So much for the AP’s “blatant error.” So much for Silber’s claim that the Demographics Unit’s detectives were not undercovers.

Contrary to Silber’s claim that no files were kept on individuals, the “NYPD Intelligence Division Strategic Posture 2006” revealed that the department identified and listed 42 individuals as top tier “persons of interest.”

Contrary to Silbers’s claim that the NYPD “did not conduct blanket ongoing surveillance of communities,” another Intelligence Division document — a 2009 “briefing report” — obtained by NYPD Confidential and the AP showed that the NYPD did precisely that.

In 2007, the NYPD sent four Intelligence Division detectives to Buffalo to spy on that city’s Somali community. The NYPD launched its operation even though the department’s key Buffalo law enforcement liaison helping them to gather intelligence “was not aware of any crime trends or crime patterns attributed to the ethnic Somali community,” that report states. [See NYPD Confidential, Feb. 27, 2012]

Finally, let’s examine Silber’s claim that the Demographics Unit was instrumental in stopping the Herald Square bombing plot.

On the eve of the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden, the police arrested, with great fanfare, would-be bomber Shahawar Matin Siraj, a Pakistani immigrant.

Siraj had an I.Q. of 78, which is considered just a step above mental retardation.

Evidence at his trial revealed that the police had paid $100,000 to a confidential informant who gained Siraj’s trust and egged him on in his plot.

A co-defendant, James Elshafay, described himself as a schizophrenic who had spent time in a psychiatric ward. Shortly after his release from his treatment, he said he began plotting with Siraj. Immediately after his arrest, Elshafay agreed to testify against Siraj.

Jurors rejected Siraj’s entrapment defense. He was convicted and is serving 30 years in prison.

If anyone besides Silber thinks the NYPD’s spying has made the city safer, that person needs to have his head examined.

Al Baker, the police bureau chief of the New York Times, is leaving One Police Plaza after nearly a decade. The son of a highly regarded NYPD detective, the gentlemanly Baker walked a tightrope between the Times’s journalistic demands and those of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and his spokesman, Paul Browne, who wanted the paper of record to stick to their official version of events. Baker, a consummate professional, played it straight. He was always solicitous of Kelly. In 2009, he wrote the seminal piece on Kelly’s wardrobe, revealing him in full-color haberdashery splendor, featuring his penchant for Windsor knots and Charvet ties — tastes that have grown more expensive in tandem with his swelling ego. At the time Baker said the piece placed Kelly in historical context. He has been proved right.

Baker also put the problems of the Kelly’s Stop and Frisk policy on the world’s radar. The New York Civil Liberties Union’s Chris Dunn called him “a prince.”

“Among his many accomplishments, Al ignited the Stop and Frisk controversy with his 2007 story revealing the explosion in the number of NYPD street stops," Dunn said. "His departure is a loss for the public, and all of us in the police world.”

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Copyright © 2012 Leonard Levitt