NEW YORK (AP) — When New York undercover officers and informants were infiltrating a mosque in Queens in 2006, they failed to notice the increasingly radical sentiments of a young man who prayed there. Police also kept tabs on a Muslim student group at Queens College, but missed a member's growing anti-Americanism.
Those two men, Najibullah Zazi at the mosque and Adis Medunjanin at the school, would go on to be accused of plotting a subway bombing that officials have called the most serious terrorist threat to the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.
Ever since The Associated Press began revealing New York Police Department spying programs on mosques, student groups, Muslim businesses and communities, those activities have been stoutly defended by police and supporters as having foiled a list of planned attacks.
Recently, for instance, when three members of Congress suggested an inquiry into those programs, Republican Rep. Peter King of New York rallied to the NYPD's defense.
"Under Commissioner Ray Kelly's leadership, at least 14 attacks by Islamic terrorists have been prevented by the NYPD," King said.
But a closer review of the cases reveals a more complicated story.
The list cited by King includes plans that may never have existed as well as plots the NYPD had little or no hand in disrupting. According to a review of public documents, materials obtained by the AP and interviews with dozens of city and federal officials, the most controversial NYPD spying programs produced mixed results. The officials interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly.
There indeed have been successes, such as the 2004 plot uncovered by the NYPD to bomb the Herald Square subway station in Manhattan.
And there have been failures, like Zazi and Medunjanin, who were exactly the kind of people police intended to spot when they developed the spying programs.
And there were other efforts that compiled data on innocent people but produced no meaningful results at all.
Kelly has spent hundreds of millions of dollars transforming the department into one of the nation's most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies. In a city that still hurts from 9/11 and still sees a hole in the ground near where the World Trade Center stood, people have had little interest in questioning whether that effort has been effective. City lawmakers, for instance, learned about many of the department's secretive programs from the AP.
For New Yorkers, the result is that fear of another terrorist attack is used to justify spying on entire neighborhoods. And the absence of another attack is held up as evidence that it works.
Some of the NYPD intelligence programs were born out of fear and desperation. After 9/11, police reached for whatever might work.
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.