Giving up liberty in the pursuit of security

The CIA has been spying on New York City’s Muslim communities for years, in violation of US law.

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New York City police indiscriminately scrutinised taxi drivers because many drivers are Muslim [GALLO/GETTY]

Hosting a reception for members of New York City’s Muslim communities in his mansion on Tuesday night, Mayor Michael Bloomberg eloquently described Muslims as an inalienable part of our great city’s fabric. By Wednesday morning, however, many of us who attended that reception would have been forgiven for thinking that we actually lived in a nightmarish American avatar of Kim Jong-Il’s Korea.

Indeed, an extensive investigation by the Associated Press raises alarming questions about the NYPD and CIA, hand in hand, breaching some of the most important bulwarks of an open and free society. Through a clandestine programme, operating without meaningful oversight and often without jurisdiction, NYPD and embedded CIA officers appear to have staged what can only be described as an end-run of staggering scope around legal strictures proscribing ethnic profiling by the government, limiting its ability to monitor constitutionally-protected activity, and prohibiting our foreign intelligence service from spying at home. 

While “mosque crawlers” monitored religious sermons, so-called “rakers” engaged in “human mapping” of minority communities, neighbourhoods, cafes, bars, nightclubs, and bookstores. Police indiscriminately scrutinised taxi drivers and food cart vendors, because Muslims are well represented in these professions. The authorities also aggressively policed and prosecuted minor traffic violations in order to pressure members of targeted Muslim communities to become spies. New Yorkers who, but for their apparent ethnic origin or religious affiliation, would not even have been stopped, were singled out for arrest and questioning in an effort to turn them into informants. 

The limits our laws place on our government are there for a reason. As a society, we do not want our government to spy on entire communities nor do we want individuals singled out on the basis of race or religion. Similarly, our CIA spies are trained to break laws and disregard rights. Our laws allow them to do that only abroad, not at home.

That the boundaries have been overstepped sadly comes as no surprise to many Muslim, Arab and South Asian Americans. Those communities have been decrying blanket surveillance and infiltration for years. The outrageous revelations should come as no surprise to attentive observers, either.

Recall the disturbing statements by Larry Sanchez, the senior CIA officer seconded to the NYPD as part of this programme. Testifying before the Senate in 2007, Sanchez explained that the secret to the NYPD’s approach was viewing constitutionally-protected activity, including the practise of religion, as a potential precursor to terrorism. Setting the stage for the NYPD’s massive fishing expedition was a 2002 federal court order paring down restrictions on the police’s ability to infiltrate communities and monitor protected activity without any concrete suspicion of actual criminal conduct.

With these most recent revelations confirming their very worst fears, the breakdown in trust between Muslim New Yorkers and their police department may well be complete and irreversible. Notwithstanding the Mayor’s rhetoric regarding tolerance and partnership, people in these communities now know that the police views them as fair game and that every aspect of normal participation in community life is exposed to surveillance. Seeing as census data was reportedly used in the mapping effort, they may no longer even wish to speak to census workers – let alone law enforcement. That the programme was modelled on how Israeli authorities operate in the West Bank casts the NYPD in the unfortunate role of brutal occupying force and the areas where Muslim New Yorkers live as occupied, foreign territory.

All New Yorkers, including Muslims, want safety. But no community should be forced to sacrifice its rights to that end. As Sanchez made clear in his congressional testimony, the NYPD believes it has a mandate to run roughshod over the privacy and rights of certain New Yorkers. Rights advocates and civil society should inform the NYPD and the Mayor that, contrary to their apparent belief, they were not issued a blank check.

From politicians and officials, the communities that have been targeted and surveilled through these covert measures deserve concrete responses. Community relations dinners, awards ceremonies, and cultural sensitivity briefings will not begin to appease the concerns confirmed by these revelations. In order to heal this rift, the City needs to commit to meaningful dialogue with a broad and representative cross-section of community organisations and activists about issues such as infiltration, surveillance and policing.

The City Council, as the NYPD’s primary watchdog, should publicly probe these revelations. The City Comptroller’s office should exercise its authority to audit this intelligence unit. And, finally, at the federal level, the Department of Justice and Congress, which bankrolls city police activity to a large extent, should investigate and hold hearings regarding this potentially grave breach of federal laws that protect civil rights, ban racial profiling, and prohibit domestic intelligence gathering by the CIA.

Anything less, and we risk forfeiting our standing in the eyes of people of conscience here and abroad as a city that welcomes all and as a country where the rule of law prevails and protects even our least popular minorities.

Ramzi Kassem is Associate Professor of Law at the City University of New York. He supervises the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project, which works to address the unmet legal needs of Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and other communities in New York City that are particularly affected by national security and counterterrorism policies and practices.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.