NEW YORK — Muslims who change their names to sound more traditionally American, as immigrants have done for generations, or who adopt Arabic names as a sign of their faith are often investigated and catalogued in secret New York Police Department intelligence files, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The NYPD monitors everyone in the city who changes his or her name, according to internal police documents and interviews. For those whose names sound Arabic or might be from Muslim countries, police run comprehensive background checks that include reviewing travel records, criminal histories, business licenses and immigration documents. All this is recorded in police databases for supervisors, who review the names and select a handful of people for police to visit.
The program was conceived as a tripwire for police in the difficult hunt for homegrown terrorists, where there are no widely agreed upon warning signs. Like other NYPD intelligence programs created in the past decade, this one involved monitoring behavior protected by the First Amendment.
Since August, an Associated Press investigation has revealed a vast NYPD intelligence-collecting effort targeting Muslims following the terror attacks of September 2001. Police have conducted surveillance of entire Muslim neighborhoods, chronicling every aspect of daily life, including where people eat, pray and get their hair cut. Police infiltrated dozens of mosques and Muslim student groups and investigated hundreds more.
Monitoring name changes illustrates how the threat of terrorism now casts suspicion over what historically has been part of America’s story. For centuries, immigrants have Americanized their names in New York. The Roosevelts were once the van Rosenvelts. Fashion designer Ralph Lauren was born Ralph Lifshitz. Donald Trump’s grandfather changed the family name from Drumpf.
David Cohen, the NYPD’s intelligence chief, worried that would-be terrorists could use their new names to lie low in New York, current and former officials recalled. Reviewing name changes was intended to identify people who either Americanized their names or took Arabic names for the first time, said the officials, who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the program.
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne did not respond to messages left over two days asking about the legal justification for the program and whether it had identified any terrorists.
The goal was to find a way to spot terrorists like Daood Gilani and Carlos Bledsoe before they attacked.
Gilani, a Chicago man, changed his name to the unremarkable David Coleman Headley to avoid suspicion as he helped plan the 2008 terrorist shooting spree in Mumbai, India. Bledsoe, of Tennessee, changed his name to Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad in 2007 and, two years later, killed one soldier and wounded another in a shooting at a recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark.
Sometime around 2008, state court officials began sending the NYPD information about new name changes, said Ron Younkins, the court’s chief of operations. The court regularly sends updates to police, he said. The information is all public, and he said the court was not aware of how police used it.
The NYPD program began as a purely analytical exercise, according to documents and interviews. Police reviewed the names received from the court and selected some for background checks that included city, state and federal criminal databases as well as federal immigration and Treasury Department databases that identified foreign travel.
Early on, police added people with American names to the list so that if details of the program ever leaked out, the department would not be accused of profiling, according to one person briefed on the program.
On one police document from that period, 2 out of every 3 people who were investigated had changed their names to or from something that could be read as Arabic-sounding.
All the names that were investigated, even those whose background checks came up empty, were cataloged so police could refer to them in the future.
The legal justification for the program is unclear from the documents obtained by the AP. Because of its history of spying on anti-war protesters and political activists, the NYPD has long been required to follow a federal court order when gathering intelligence. That order allows the department to conduct background checks only when police have information about possible criminal activity, and only as part of “prompt and extremely limited” checking of leads.
The NYPD’s rules also prohibit opening investigations based solely on activities protected by the First Amendment. Federal courts have held that people have a right to change their names and, in the case of religious conversion, that right is protected by the First Amendment.
The NYPD is not alone in its monitoring of Muslim neighborhoods. The FBI has its own ethnic mapping program that singled out Muslim communities and agents have been criticized for targeting mosques.
The name change program is an example of how, while the NYPD says it operates under the same rules as the FBI, police have at times gone beyond what is allowed by the federal government. The FBI would not be allowed to run a similar program because of First Amendment and privacy concerns and because the goal is too vague and the program too broad, according to FBI rules and interviews with federal officials.
Police expanded their efforts in late 2009, according to documents and interviews. After analysts ran background checks, police began selecting a handful of people to visit and interview.
Internally, some police groused about the program. Many people who were approached didn’t want to talk and police couldn’t force them to.
A Pakistani cab driver, for instance, told police he did not want to talk to them about why he took Sheikh as a new last name, documents show.
Police also knew that a would-be terrorist who Americanized his name in hopes of lying low was unlikely to confess as much to detectives. In fact, of those who agreed to talk at all, many said they Americanized their names because they were being harassed or were having problems getting a job and thought a new name would help.
But as with other intelligence programs at the NYPD, Cohen hoped it would send a message to would-be bombers that police were watching, current and former officials said.
As it expanded, the program began to target Muslims even more directly, drawing criticism from Stuart Parker, an in-house NYPD lawyer, who said there had to be standards for who was being interviewed, a person involved in the discussions recalled. In response, police interviewed people with Arabic-sounding names but only if their background checks matched specific criteria.
The names of those who were interviewed, even those who chose not to speak with police, were recorded in police reports stored in the department’s database, according to documents and interviews, while names of those who received only background checks were kept in a separate file in the Intelligence Division.
Donna Gabaccia, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, said that for many families, name changes are important aspects of the American story. Despite the myth that officials at Ellis Island Americanized the names of people arriving in the U.S., most immigrants changed their names themselves to avoid ridicule and discrimination or just to fit in, she said.
The NYPD program, she said, turned that story on its head.
“In the past, you changed your name in response to stigmatization,” she said. “And now, you change your name and you are stigmatized. There’s just something very sad about this.”
As for converts to Islam, the religion does not require them to take Arabic names but many do as a way to publicly identify their faith, said Jonathan Brown, a Georgetown University professor of Islamic studies.
Taking an Arabic name might be a sign that someone is more religious, Brown said, but it doesn’t necessarily suggest someone is more radical. He said law enforcement nationwide has often confused the two points in the fight against terrorism.
“It’s just an example of the silly, conveyor-belt approach they have, where anyone who gets more religious is by definition more dangerous,” Brown said.
Sarah Feinstein-Borenstein, a 75-year-old Jewish woman who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was surprised to learn that she was among the Americans drawn into the NYPD program in its infancy. She hyphenated her last name in 2009. Police investigated and recorded her information in a police intelligence file because of it.
“It’s rather shocking to me,” she said. “I think they would have better things to do. It’s is a waste of my tax money.”
Feinstein-Borenstein was born in Egypt and lived there until the Suez Crisis in 1956. With a French mother and a Jewish religion, she and her family were labeled “undesirable” and were kicked out. She came to the U.S. in 1963.
“If you live long enough,” she said, “you see everything.”