Inside Story America

Is spying on Muslims legal in the US?

As New York police face the heat for arbitrary spying of citizens we ask if the US government will probe the matter.

An investigation has found further proof that the New York Police Department (NYPD) has been spying on citizens just based on their religion, Islam, and without any apparent evidence of criminal activity.

The NYPD has established one of the most aggressive and effective intelligence systems since 9/11, based upon the fact that in the last 10 years 14 of the 19 significant plots have been against New York targets. It’s not some kind of random ethnic or racial profiling. If you have an enemy that says they will murder people for their religion… that they are soldiers of Allah and recruiting people in mosques, you would be irresponsible not to find out who in these communities is a part of that potential threat group or is inciting others to violence.”

– Sebastian Gorka, a national security analyst

Back in August, The Associated Press first revealed that the NYPD, with the help of the CIA, developed one of the biggest domestic intelligence agencies in the country.

It targetted US citizens based solely on their religion or ethnicity.

Undercover officers nicknamed “rakers” were assigned to go into neighbourhoods and monitor the population.

Police built databases showing where Muslims live, where they buy groceries, what Internet cafes they use and where they watch sport.

Informants, whom they called “mosque crawlers”, were used to attend religious services and then report back.

The Associated Press obtained the secret NYPD demographics reports that compiled information on people and places and activity at different locations.

There are many similar maps of a neighbourhood in Newark, where a range of halal grocery stores as well as mosques and madrasahs, or schools of Islamic learning, are clearly marked.

In addition to specific profiles of individual US citizens, there are also descriptions of activity at many locations.

For example, at one restaurant the file notes that Muslims, of Chinese descent, operate the restaurant. And that during the visit, three African Muslim males and an Egyptian male customer were observed dining, and that an Egyptian male customer had a conversation about a mosque nearby.

I disagree with Mr Gorka, because when it comes to surveillance and particularly investigative work you have to have individualised suspicion. There is a reason why our law requires [that], and reasonable suspicion and probable cause. I don’t think the law supports this type of dragnet, profiling-based surveillance.

– Sahar Aziz, a former US Department of Homeland Security advisor

Meanwhile, Muslim groups, rights organisations and some US politicans have complained that civil liberties have been abused and they have called on the US government to investigate.

Now The Associated Press has revealed Muslim students at 16 universities across the northeastern US were also monitored.

Police looked at websites used by Muslim students, and even sent an undercover agent on a student trip.

There were new revelations that the NYPD also spied on Muslims in New Jersey. The governor there called the findings disturbing and there have been calls for an investigation.

Throughout the controversy, the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, and the city’s police commissioner have maintained that no lines were crossed and that the steps were taken to protect the city.

Following the latest revelations, Keith Ellison, a Democrat congressman and a Muslim, told Al Jazeera:

“Law enforcement must be done in accordance with the constitution, that means just snooping and spying on people where there’s no factual basis to believe that they’re involved in any kind of criminal activity just because of what their religion is, is disturbing to me. The NYPD crossed a moral line… whether they crossed a legal one is yet to be determined.

“The basic theme of our constitution is that if you’re not doing anything wrong, government is supposed to leave you alone. But if somebody… a Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu or anyone is doing something that looks like it’s going to break the law, or is dangerous or harmful to others, then it is in fact the job of law enforcement to stop that.”

So has the NYPD violated civil liberties by spying on Muslims? Should the US government investigate what has taken place?

To discuss this with presenter Lisa Fletcher on Inside Story Americas are: Sahar Aziz, a law professor at the Texas Wesleyan University School of Law and a former advisor for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the US Department of Homeland Security; Sebastian Gorka, a national security analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; and Haroon Moghul from the online magazine Religion Dispatches who has been working with Muslim groups in New York since these revelations were published.

We also invited representatives of the NYPD, the office of Michael Bloomberg, the New York mayor, and the US Department of Justice to appear on Al Jazeera, but they either declined or did not return our calls.

“It is inaccurate to say that you have to go find who these extremists are by going to mosques. You can ask American Muslims. The assumption is that American Muslims don’t want to help out, and that is false. The fact is that American Muslims are your best resource in trying to stop [terror plots]. The behaviour of the NYPD has taken the trust between these communities and ruined it, and it has done significant damage.”

Haroon Moghul from the online magazine Religion Dispatches