Apuzzo and Goldman’s long campaign: Behind the Associated Press' big NYPD counterterror investigation

Masjid at-Taqwa on Bedford Avenue. (Paul Lowry via flickr)
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It was a morning late in December or early in January at the Washington bureau of the Associated Press when two reporters, Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, swung by the desk of Ted Bridis, who oversees the bureau's investigative news team.

The two were coming to be regarded at the bureau as a nascent Woodward-and-Bernstein team since the previous summer, when they began working together on big enterprise features. Fresh from New York, they were bursting to tell Bridis the story a source had related to them over dinner the night before.

Bridis remembers them telling him that the New York Police Department had been running a safe house out of an apartment in New Brunswick, N.J., a gentrified college town where many of the two- or three-family homes were venues for all-night keggers thrown by Rutgers University undergrads.

This particular apartment, however, was not a party spot but the nerve center for an anti-terrorism operation the NYPD had been conducting throughout New Jersey.

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The catch was, neither local New Jersey law enforcement nor the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been alerted to the covert command center. So when a panicked building inspector who thought he'd stumbled upon a terrorist cell alerted local authorities, New Brunswick police and federal agents responded by blasting through the doors one day in June of 2009.

“It was the NYPD versus the feds,” said Bridis. “This was interesting.”

That event was the spark that ignited an explosive 5,000-word piece by Apuzzo and Goldman. It took months of work, but on Tuesday, August 23, the anecdote was featured in the first in a series of high-profile exclusives that have exposed C.I.A.-like spy tactics adopted by the NYPD in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

The series sheds light on a sweeping surveillance program that has infiltrated every corner of the city's Muslim community, arguably stretching the U.S. Constitution to its limits in the process.

"The department has dispatched undercover officers, known as 'rakers,' into minority neighborhoods as part of a human mapping program, according to officials directly involved in the program," Apuzzo and Goldman wrote in the August 23 piece. "They've monitored daily life in bookstores, bars, cafes and nightclubs. Police have also used informants, known as 'mosque crawlers,' to monitor sermons, even when there's no evidence of wrongdoing."

The latest piece, which explores what "one of the CIA's most experienced clandestine operatives" is doing inside the NYPD, was published this morning. Another is expected to drop later in the week.

HAVING WORKED ON THE AP'S NEW YORK METRO DESK before joining the the wire's Beltway operation in May of 2010, the idea of taking a closer look at the NYPD had always been in the back of Goldman's mind. But it wasn't until this past winter that a reportable narrative began to crystallize.

A few weeks after Goldman and Apuzzo learned about the incident in New Brunswick, the D.C. investigative team gathered in Bridis' office to brainstorm ideas for the AP's 10th anniversary Sept. 11 coverage. As was standard during such meetings, Bridis sat perched atop his desk, Goldman leaned against the wall, and Apuzzo kicked back in a swivel chair.

Goldman and Appuzo pitched the NYPD story, explaining that a variety of sources had been dishing to them on the department's aggressive anti-terror tactics.

"They said, 'Look, we wanna break some news here, not write navel-gazing stories about how America has changed, or, "Did the terrorists win?", or how dramatic this was,'" Bridis recalled. "That was the genesis."

The stories have been just that: Solid reportage from the front-lines of the tradeoff between civil liberties and security, not from a philosophical or legal standpoint but from the standpoint of actual facts on the ground.

For New Yorkers, the reports give body to the most delicate quandaries to have emerged from the rubble of 9/11.

For the AP, they justify the wire's calculated increase in U.S. intelligence community coverage in recent years. It's a tough beat, and the gatekeepers of American journalism didn't exactly nail it the last time around, when their credulous reporting on W.M.D. in the early 2000s helped usher in a protracted war that American troops are only now preparing to withdraw from.

"It's an enormous area for society to be watching," said Mike Oreskes, the AP's senior managing editor for U.S. news. "For journalism to be watching."

ON FEB. 17, APUZZO AND GOLDMAN GAVE BRIDIS A 600-WORD roadmap for their reporting on the NYPD intelligence story. In the subsequent months, as they worked their sources, gathering string, Oreskes said, the evidence was taking them "beyond anything we'd previously known about how forceful and determined the New York Police Department was in trying to identify [terror] threats."

There were dozens of trips to New York, often multiple times a week. The routine was always the same: Apuzzo and Goldman would head north to interview sources and mine for documents. Then they'd come back and Bridis would "prosecute" their reporting: How does this person actually know this? Doesn't that contradict what this other person said? How can we reconcile this statement with that one? And so on.

"The breadth of their reporting and the depth of people they were talking to was just so impressive," said Bridis. "You lean back and you go, 'OK, I feel really comfortable about this.'"

On April 25, the duo submitted a detailed, 7-point planning memo outlining their findings. And finally they were ready to start writing in earnest.

"That's the first time I realized we had enough to write a story," said Goldman.

The end result was the product of hundreds of hours of interviews, travel time and old-fashioned shoe leather between five cities. They jotted notes into Moleskine journals. For accuracy, Apuzzo would type up his notes from an interview and have Goldman cross-check them against his own. There are two black three-ring binders, each about three-inches thick, stuffed with their findings. Bridis keeps one of them under lock and key.

As for the total cost of the undertaking, "There were a lot of $300 train rides, hotel stays, source dinners," said Bridis. "But at no time did my boss come down and say, 'You've gotta rein this in.'"

Still, the investigation benefits from being this close to home: These articles probably didn't run up as high a tab as other high-impact investigative work at the A.P., such as its Polk Award-winning Gulf oil spill package or its probe of Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The actual writing and editing of the first story took about three weeks, including four drafts passed back and forth between four different editors. Prior to publication, there were six editors with knowledge of the story. The only other staffers who knew it existed were Goldman, Apuzzo and two others who contributed reporting—Eileen Sullivan, also on the counterterrorism beat, and Tom Hays from the New York bureau. (Additional A.P. reporters have since pitched in.) The various drafts were kept off the A.P.'s internal content management system until the 11th hour each time, to ensure security.

At one point, when Goldman was in the Middle East on a separate assignment, he communicated with Apuzzo and Bridis via encrypted emails on a GPG-enabled loaner laptop. During an especially sensitive source meeting in New York, Bridis instructed Apuzzo to remove the battery from his cell phone so it would be harder for anyone to trace either his location or the identify of his informant.

"It was a tense period of hours that he was out of contact with us," said Bridis.

After the meeting, Apuzzo immediately scanned copies of the sensitive materials he had received and uploaded them electronically. He reinserted the cell phone battery on the Amtrak ride back to D.C. and emailed Bridis: “Leaving nyc now.”

But despite the precautions they took to in order to keep the story under wraps, even from their colleagues, there was one harrowing moment when Apuzzo and Goldman thought they might lose their scoop.

It was August 3, a few weeks before they were scheduled to pull the trigger. Sources had tipped them off that a newspaper in Boston (Bridis declined to say which one), was about to cover a terrorism-related court hearing with tangential relevance to their investigation; some of the things they were finding might actually just be said in court as part of some testimony. (For perhaps obvious reasons, the A.P. declined to specify any further which case this was.) Panic ensued.

"We were all holding our breath to see how deeply our competitor was gonna dig," said Bridis.

The evening the story was expected to land, the three of them sat glued to their computer screens, refreshing the paper's website over and over until the piece finally showed up around 7:30. The competition ended up making only a passing reference to the relevant issue in the 17th paragraph of a 21-paragraph article. Reassured, Bridis emailed Apuzzo and Goldman: “Readers won't pick up the import of this.”

By the time their first story landed a few weeks later, they were already at work on the next several installments. Apuzzo promoted the initial bombshell on "Morning Joe" and "Countdown with Keith Olbermann." Sullivan and other reporters, including A.P. writer Chris Hawley, contributed follow-ups.

The team has since made waves with stories about the NYPD's targeting of specific ethnic communities and the infiltration of Muslim student groups at various New York colleges. Today's hit on the C.I.A. operative within the department is the 16th piece in the series.

"His role is important because the last time a CIA officer worked so closely with the NYPD, beginning in the months after the 9/11 attacks, he became the architect of aggressive police programs that monitored Muslim neighborhoods," Apuzzo and Goldman wrote. "With the earlier help from this CIA official, the police put entire communities under the microscope based on ethnicity rather allegations of wrongdoing."

The reporting has been powerful enough to create divisions in New York media and political circles.

"The AP, in a spate of recent articles, has sought to raise fear over what it clearly thinks have been post-9/11 NYPD civil-liberties abuses," reads a Sept. 8 New York Post editorial. "What the AP and NYCLU forget is that the world—and, critically, the law itself—changed after 9/11. New Yorkers understand that counterterror folks need to be aggressive about pre-empting attacks to protect them."

"To AP's intrepid, if not obsessed, reporters, these basic and benign measures are a scandal," the Daily News concurred on Sept. 23. "Well, they just don't get it, and, with the exception of the most knee-jerk civil liberties activists, they are essentially alone in not getting that the NYPD is valuably scoping out the who, what and where of neighborhoods by observing little more than activities in public view."

The Daily News, for its part, has since published an Op Ed piece by New York University School of Law's Faiza Patel noting the importance of the AP's investigation and criticizing the NYPD for going "too far."

"I think we're doing exactly what we're supposed to be doing: holding the work of government to scrutiny," said Oreskes, who was diplomatic when asked to comment on the tabloid attacks.

"And they're doing exactly what they should be doing," he said, "which is to help their readers think about that work. They both editorialized that the police department was doing good work here. We don't have an opinion about what the police department was doing. The only opinion we have is that it was newsworthy."

City Councilman Peter Vallone first said that the Council was aware of the counterterrorism activities of the NYPD but later admitted that the Council had no oversight over it; if the NYPD's methods need to be examined, it couldn't be the City Council doing the examining.

New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has also pushed back on the reports. During a City Council hearing earlier this month, he hit out strongly against the suggestion that the NYPD program was essentially an unlawful sanction of racial profiling.

"Establishing this kind of geographically based knowledge of the city's communities saves precious time in deterring fast-moving plots," he said.

At the same hearing, however, the department came under criticism from City Councilman Brad Lander, who said: “It looks like we are targeting Muslim neighborhoods and communities. That’s not good for us."

Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez has called for a hearing to discuss "contributions" Muslim students have made to CUNY, but has agreed that at the hearing there will be no discussion of the substance of the NYPD's counterterrorism operations.

But how much more will be revealed about those efforts?

"I would say through the end of the year, the A.P. will be producing stories on this on a regular basis," said Bridis. "We're always sensitive to when the story's done, when it's time to move on to the next big thing. We're cognizant of that, but we're just not there yet. We've got a lot more to write."

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