From an office on the Brooklyn waterfront in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, New York Police Department officials and a veteran CIA officer built an intelligence-gathering program with an ambitious goal: to map the region's ethnic communities and dispatch teams of undercover officers to keep tabs on where Muslims shopped, ate and prayed.
The program was known as the Demographics Unit and, though the NYPD denies its existence, the squad maintained a long list of "ancestries of interest" and received daily reports on life in Muslim neighborhoods, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The documents offer a rare glimpse into an intelligence program shaped and steered by a CIA officer. It was an unusual partnership, one that occasionally blurred the line between domestic and foreign spying. The CIA is prohibited from gathering intelligence inside the United States.
Undercover police officers, known as rakers, visited Islamic bookstores and cafes, businesses and clubs. Police looked for businesses that attracted certain minorities, such as taxi companies hiring Pakistanis. They were told to monitor current events, keep an eye on community bulletin boards inside houses of worship and look for "hot spots" of trouble.
The Demographics Unit, a team of 16 officers speaking at least five languages, is the only squad of its kind known to be operating in the country.
Using census information and government databases, the NYPD mapped ethnic neighborhoods in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Rakers then visited local businesses, chatting up store owners to determine their ethnicity and gauge their sentiment, the documents show. They played cricket and eavesdropped in the city's ethnic cafes and clubs.
When the CIA would launch drone attacks in Pakistan, the NYPD would dispatch rakers to Pakistani neighborhoods to listen for angry rhetoric and anti-American comments, current and former officials involved in the program said.
The focus was on a list of 28 countries that, along with "American Black Muslim," were considered "ancestries of interest." Nearly all were Muslim countries.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said last week that the NYPD does not take religion into account in its policing. The inclusion of American Black Muslims on the list of ancestries of interest suggests that religion was at least a consideration. Wednesday, Bloomberg's office referred questions to the police department.
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said the department only follows leads and does not simply trawl communities. "We do not employ undercovers or confidential informants unless there is information indicating the possibility of unlawful activity," Browne wrote in an email to the AP.
Before the AP revealed the existence of the Demographics Unit last week, Browne said neither the Demographics Unit nor the term "rakers" exist. Both are in the documents obtained by the AP.
Rep. Yvette Clarke, a Democrat who represents much of Brooklyn and sits on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the NYPD can protect the city without singling out specific ethnic and religious groups. She joined Muslim organizations in calling for a Justice Department investigation into the NYPD Intelligence Division. The department said it would review the request for an investigation.
"There were those who, during World War II, said, 'Good, I'm glad they're interning all the Japanese-Americans who are living here,' " Clarke said. "But we look back on that period with disdain."