One man was a food cart vendor from Afghanistan, arrested during an argument with a parking enforcement officer over a ticket. Another was an Egyptian-born limousine driver, picked up in a prostitution sting. Still another was an accounting student from Pakistan, in custody for driving without a valid license.
The men, all Muslim immigrants, went through similar ordeals: waiting in a New York stationhouse cell or a lockup facility, expecting to be arraigned, only to be pulled aside and questioned by detectives. The queries were not about the charges against them, but about where they went to mosque and what their prayer habits were. Eventually, the detectives got to the point: Would they work for the police, eavesdropping in Muslim cafes and restaurants, or in mosques?
Beginning a few years after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a squad of detectives, known as the Citywide Debriefing Team, has combed the city’s jails for immigrants – predominantly Muslims – who might be persuaded to become police informants, according to documents obtained by The New York Times, along with interviews with former members of the unit and senior police officials.
Last month, the Police Department announced it had disbanded a controversial surveillance unit that had sent plainclothes detectives into Muslim communities to listen in on conversations and build detailed files on where people ate, prayed and shopped. But the continuing work of the debriefing team shows that the department has not backed away from other counterterrorism initiatives that it created in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In the first quarter of this year, according to police officials, the team conducted 220 interviews.
The Times reviewed two dozen reports generated by the debriefing team in early 2009. Together, the documents and the interviews offered an up-close view of how the squad operates, functioning as a recruiter for the Intelligence Division, the arm of the department that is dedicated to foiling terrorist plots. But they also showed that the division’s counterterrorism mission had come to intersect in some new – and potentially uncomfortable – ways with the department’s more traditional crime-fighting work.