What a contrast. While the editors of the New York Times were setting in type their editorial attacking the New York Police Department for spying on Muslims, Commissioner Kelly was getting a standing ovation from the alumni of Fordham University Law School. The Times editorial — called “Surveillance, Security and Civil Liberties” — bought into the campaign that has been levied against the NYPD by the Associated Press, which, the Times asserted, “has exposed constitutionally suspect surveillance of Muslims in New York, New Jersey, Long Island and beyond.” But the lawyers, judges, and law enforcement professionals who stood and applauded Mr. Kelly clearly thought otherwise.
According to the Times, police records have been unearthed that “noticeably lack any apparent link to suspected criminal activity, or any obvious payoff for public safety.” It reports that the AP disclosed that, as the Times put it, “police officers systematically monitored the Web sites and blogs of Muslim student groups at N.Y.U., Columbia, Yale, Rutgers and a dozen other colleges.” It faults Mayor Bloomberg and other leaders for backing Commissioner Kelly. The editorial lacked any mention of Mr. Kelly’s speech at Fordham, even though he made there his most detailed defense yet of the department’s intelligence work.
Mr. Kelly began by suggesting that the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, with a bombing that slew six persons, “should have been a wake-up call for the nation and the city.” It was not, the commissioner noted. He asserted that America had “paid the price for that failure eight years ago — in the death of 3,000 people, the destruction of the Twin Towers, damange to the Pentagon, and the devastating trillion-dollar cost to our economy.” By the time he returned as commissioner, he said, “it was clear the city could not simply defer the responsibility of counterterrorism to the federal government.”
The commissioner then traced the buildup of the department’s counterterrorism bureau and the heroic figures who led the effort. He sketched the joint work with FBI. “We found within our ranks fluent speakers of languages such as Arabic, Pashto, and Urdu, and reassigned them to counterterrorism duties,” Mr. Kelly said. “We posted senior officers in 11 cities around the world to form relationships with local police agencies and visit the scenes of terrorist attacks.We hired a corps of civilian analysts who are experts in foreign affairs and military intelligence. They study regions of the world we’re concerned about and emerging methods of attack.”
Then the commissioner sketched the “wide net for collaboration” that was established with other law enforcement agencies and with private security firms. He acknowledged that “some of our methods of intelligence gathering have been the subject of debate” and, he added, “frankly, misrepresentation.” Then he opened up a discussion that was absent from the Times’s editorial, namely the rules known as the Handschu Guidelines. These stem from a lawsuit that grew out of a police investigation in the 1970s in respect of the Black Panthers. A class-action lawsuit was lead by a plaintiff named Barbara Handschu, and a settlement was entered regulating police investigations involving political activity.
Mr. Kelly sketched how, after 9/11, the city proposed to a federal court “that the law be modified.” It was, he said, concerned that “elements of the guidelines could interfere with our ability to investigate terrorism.” The court agreed to changes. Mr. Kelly asserted that his department imposed on itself “the strictest interpretation of political activity.” He suggested that one could “easily argue that when we investigate terrorism, we are dealing with criminal, not political, activity.” But he said the department goes “above and beyond” by treating “every terrorism investigation as subject to Handschu.”
Then he sketched the guidelines, which begin with a general principle: “In its effort to anticipate or prevent unlawful activity, including terrorist acts, the NYPD must, at times, initiate investigations in advance of unlawful conduct.” Hen then quoted what Handschu says about what Mr. Kelly called “the broadest form” of intelligence gathering. Says Handschu: “The NYPD is authorized to visit any place and attend any event that is open to the public” and “to conduct online search activity and to access online sites and forums on the same terms… as members of the public.”
The department, Mr. Kelly said, “is further authorized to, ‘prepare general reports and assessments… for purposes of strategic or operational planning.’” And he pulled no punches in respect of the critics of the NYPD: “Anyone who intimates that it is unlawful for the Police Department to search online, visit public places, or map neighborhoods has either not read, misunderstood, or intentionally obfuscated the meaning of the Handschu Guidelines. A broad base of knowledge is critically important to our ability to investigate terrorism. It was precisely our failure to understand the context in 1993 that left us vulnerable in 2001.”
The commissioner noted that members of the 9/11 Commission “note this fact in their final report. Of the 1993 bombing they write, ‘The successful use of the legal system had the side effect of obscuring the need to examine the character and extent of the new threat facing the United States.’” Declared Mr. Kelly: “We won’t make that mistake again – on Mayor Bloomberg’s watch, or mine.” He made a point of noting that “while the vast majority of Muslim student associations and their members are law-abiding, we have seen too many cases in which such groups were exploited. Since 9/11, some of the most violent terrorists we’ve encountered were radicalized or recruited at universities.”
In 2006, a series of al Qaeda plots surfaced “involving university students and members of Muslim student associations in the U.K.,” Mr. Kelly noted. That lead to what he called “a six-month initiative to search open sources for signs of such activity in our area.” The way he put it is: “We did not look at these groups on the basis of their religious affiliation. We looked at their public communications on the basis of examples like the 2005 London transit bombing and the 2006 plot to detonate explosives on transatlantic airliners, both of which involved active members of Muslim student associations in Britain. We concluded our research in May of 2007, but not before we found a few items of concern here in New York.”
Mr. Kelly touched on the case of Jesse Curtis Morton, a graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs who recently pleaded guilty in a federal court in Virginia to conspiracy to solicit murder. It turns out the NYPD “had been watching Morton for some time after he was found to be an advocate for violence. We took note when, in November 2006, he visited Stony Brook University’s Muslim student association to speak and recruit. The following year he founded the website Revolution Muslim, which became a platform for murderous ideology and a meeting place for various violent actors. On his website, readers could find the contents of Inspire magazine, a publication put out by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and which included articles such as “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom’.”
That’s the document, Mr. Kelly said, that Jose Pimentel used to learn to make pipe bombs last year. “When we arrested Pimentel in November, he was an hour away from completing the first of a series of bombs with which he planned to attack the city. On Wednesday, Pimentel was indicted on charges of weapons possession and conspiracy as terror crimes. Pimentel had been in touch with Morton to tell him how much he liked his website.” Mr. Kelly reckons that a total of ten people who’ve been arrested on terrorism charges have been in contact with Revolution Muslim. This list also includes Mohamed Alessa and Carlos Almonte, whom the city stopped at JFK Airport on their way to join the terrorist organization al Shabaab in Somalia.
“Since 9/11,” Mr. Kelly asserted, “New York City has been targeted by terrorists in 14 different plots. Thanks to the work of the Police Department, the FBI, and a good deal of luck, none of these plots have succeeded. In fact, while the city saw terrorist attacks in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, no attack has taken place in the past ten years. We are proud of this fact. We’re also very clear about the nature of the threat we face. It is persistent and it is dangerous. The Police Department will not apologize for our lawful efforts to protect New York, and we will not change our methods to satisfy those who would impugn them without understanding them.” No wonder the commissioner got a standing ovation. There were fine reports of it in both the Wall Street Journal and the Daily News, incidentally, even if there was nothing — at least as of Sunday evening — fit to print in the Times.