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Podcast: NYPD Infiltration of Brooklyn College Suggests Surveillance of Muslims Continues

The New York Police Department deployed an undercover officer named “Mel,” who “converted” to Islam and infiltrated Brooklyn College, according to a report published in the Gothamist.

As reported, three Brooklyn College graduates shared how “Mel” had developed relationships with them. She was present “during some of the most private moments of their lives,” and they were terribly afraid when they learned of the undercover’s true identity.

The graduates learned of her true identity after two Queens residents named Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siddiqui were arrested in an FBI-NYPD sting operation for allegedly planning to construct a bomb. However, what is alarming is Velentzas and Siddiqui were not Brooklyn College students and there is no apparent reason why the undercover had to befriend students at the college to conduct an operation targeting Velentzas or Siddiqui.

Aviva Stahl, an independent journalist who produced this report for the Gothamist, joins the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast to talk about “Mel,” how the graduates felt violated, the operation and the NYPD’s reaction to this story, which includes a ludicrous rejection of the idea that Muslims have ever before been subject to “blanket surveillance” by the city’s police.

During the discussion portion of the show, Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola highlight the problems with think pieces suggesting all critics of Hillary Clinton are “Bernie Bros.” They also discuss Shaker Aamer’s case and read from a prison letter from Chelsea Manning to Gosztola.

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Below is a partial transcript of the interview with Aviva Stahl.

GOSZTOLA: Let’s set this up. I don’t think this is as familiar of a case, though your piece did get a lot of traction, and our listeners may be familiar with the story we’re talking about. But what happened here with this New York Police Department operation?

STAHL: Sure. My story spans the two most recent mayoral administrations in New York and so it begins in 2011, spring of 2011, when a women named “Mel”—she called herself Mel—showed up at Brooklyn College at an Islamic Society event. She said she wanted to convert. She took the Shahada, which is often considered the most holiest words in Islam. And she was embraced by a lot of students around her.

A little bit of time passed. Some students began to suspect immediately that she was a cop or an informant but felt like there was very little they could do to substantiate their concerns or to stop her from being around them. So, years passed and “Mel” continued to build more intimate relationships with a woman she met at Brooklyn College and also elsewhere across New York City. And over the course of the years that she was undercover, according to my sources, from at least the spring of 2011 to the end of 2014, she attended bridal showers and weddings of the women she met.

Then, in a seemingly unrelated development, two Queens women were arrested and charged allegedly trying to build a bomb. It was clear from the criminal complaint that an undercover officer was heavily involved in the alleged offenses. Shortly thereafter, the women at Brooklyn College learned that this undercover cop in this criminal complaint was the same “Mel” they’d known on campus and that all of their suspicions that this woman was a cop or an informant were actually true.

KHALEK: So there’s so many layers to this story. First is just how deeply this woman embedded herself into their lives. Like you mentioned, she was going to bridal showers. She was like in a few wedding parties. She was bridesmaid. There’s also the fact that this was at an institute of higher education, an academic institution. My question is, does that violate any sorts of laws or agreements? And what was the school’s response?

STAHL: There is an agreement. I think there was a 1992 memorandum of understanding between the NYPD and CUNY that there aren’t supposed to be any cops on campus without the explicit permission of CUNY leadership. But we know that’s been broken in the past. There were stories written in 2011 about there being undercover cops at Brooklyn College and many other universities in the northeast.

Brooklyn College came out then and said they hadn’t known about it, and they obviously weren’t going to defend it and they were really disappointed there were undercover cops again. But when I contacted Brooklyn College, they said again they didn’t know about it. But they also told me in the interim years, between 2011 and now, they’ve never actually approached the NYPD and explicitly said that cops shouldn’t be on campus, which sort of raises some bizarre questions about what it means to protect your students. I think it is plausible that CUNY and Brooklyn College weren’t aware that there were undercover cops on campus, but they also didn’t take steps to protect their students.

KHALEK: Like you said, if you don’t do anything about it you’re looking away by default.

GOSZTOLA: Alright, so this got a lot of attention, and it ended up that John Miller, who is a deputy commissioner of intelligence & terrorism for the the New York Police Department.

KHALEK: He’s their media propagandist.

GOSZTOLA: Yeah, he came on WNYC radio and was blasting your story. I have the quote. I’m going to read it, and then you can talk about how he rejected your framing completely because I think this gets to the key issue here.

He was asked, “Last year, the mayor said he would stop the NYPD’s blanket surveillance of Muslim communities, and the Demographics Unit, which conducted that surveillance, was shut down. But the work of this particular officer appears to have continued after that declaration. So is the NYPD still looking at Muslims?” And John Miller said, “That’s like saying, you know, are you beating your wife. There’s actually nothing in the statement that you just made that is actually factually correct. So, let’s back through it piece by piece.”

And then one more thing that he said after that—the thing that is particularly shocking to me—was that “there was no blanket surveillance of Muslims before.” [Khalek laughs.] It’s a punchline. We can get into more about John Miller. Aviva, what’s your reaction to this thing that there’s nothing factual in your Gothamist story?

STAHL: I think what is really interesting is later in the interview the host says is there any truth to the Gothamist story. Miller says there is truth in the Gothamist story if you pick out certain facts. You can say, well, this is true or that’s true, but it’s wrapped around the narrative that there was this over-arching blanket surveillance, which is not the case. Which is, like you were saying, the fact that he refutes the notion that there was any blanket surveillance of Muslims in New York City is ludicrous and stands against ongoing litigation and the documents that the NYPD itself produced that have since been discovered or released.

I think anybody who read the Pulitzer Prize-winning reports by AP on the kind of surveillance of Muslim communities would find it really difficult to believe that. Miller can make that comment and not be questioned about and not be questioned about it since on its face it’s so false.

KHALEK: I guess, if he says it enough, maybe he thinks it will be true. But I think it is great that the story made it to the NYPD. Like, it’s wonderful. Congratulations. I also think the wife beater comment is so bizarre and awesome. It makes no sense. He just sounds like a bumbling idiot.

GOSZTOLA: Well, yeah, I just think sometimes that person is actually beating their wife.

KHALEK: Yeah. Why else would you say that? There’s no even analogy that makes sense.

STAHL: Also, it is the fact that the journalist didn’t respond critically. Earlier in October, in the lawsuit by CCR and Muslim Advocates, their lawsuit was reinstated, a lawsuit they brought stated their was widespread surveillance of Muslims that discriminated on the basis of the religion. The lawsuit was put back in play so they could pursue it. So, there obviously is some validity to the claims, even to the courts.

KHALEK: To shift a bit for a moment, this did spill over into Bill de Blasio’s administration, who said that this kind of surveillance was done. So what does that say about the de Blasio administration, who has been credited with shutting this stuff down but still under his watch there are NYPD operations ongoing that are violating the rights of Muslims in New York City?

STAHL: I think de Blasio has really taken a lot of credit for shuttering the Demographics Unit. The last July at a Gracie Mansion Ramadan dinner he said Muslim New Yorkers are still fighting for basic human rights. But he recently shut down the Demographics Unit at the NYPD, which conducted surveillance of New Yorkers because it’s unfair to single out people on the sole basis of their religion. But you know it’s really clear from at least my sources that they feel like they were surveilled solely on the basis of their faith and I think the story raises some questions about whether we’re doing enough to hold the de Blasio administration to account for the NYPD’s activities — you know, both when it comes to Muslim New Yorkers but also policing issues more broadly.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."