That fellow with the earpiece buying a gyro at the Halal deli may not be simply a hungry worker on lunch break; he might be a government spy. His assigned subject: the Halal deli owner, but not for anything the deli owner has done, but for something he is: Muslim.
Congress passed the Patriot Act a month after the 9/11 attacks as a way to bolster the U.S. intelligence agencies’ ability to investigate and prevent terrorist activity. The Act has local as well as federal features--it makes it possible for city and state police to surveil Muslims.
Local law enforcement agencies have seized upon the expanded surveillance opportunities afforded by anti-terrorism laws. In August 2013, the Associated Press reported that the New York Police Department had instituted a program of spying on several city mosques that the NYPD had labeled “terrorism enterprises.” This program allegedly featured hidden cameras, “planted” infiltrators, and (in a twist right out of “Dick Tracy”) microphones in watches. The ACLU has sued the city and the NYPD to try to halt this program. On September 10, 2013, the city asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit. The AP also reported on a CIA connection to the surveillance: CIA employees mentored and assisted NYPD officers in the surveillance program while on the CIA payroll.
New York City officials claim that the surveillance is necessary and has thwarted planned terrorist activity. However, civil rights organizations, Muslim groups, and others have questioned these claims. And, during sworn testimony in August 2012, the Chief of the NYPD Intelligence Division stated that the NYPD mosque surveillance unit had failed to produce even one criminal lead in the six years that he held his post.
The NYPD surveillance reached across state lines and into New Jersey’s Muslim communities. The New Jersey State Attorney General concluded that the NYPD did not violate state laws in so doing. The Associated Press has reported that the NYPD surveillance branched out into the entire Northeast. Mosques, schools, students, Muslim groups, and businesses have been targeted. Authorities even zeroed in on food cart operators and taxi cab drivers, as well as imams.
Campus police and other authorities have kept tabs on Muslim student groups on campuses in New York and elsewhere.
Officers assigned to the surveillance details stationed themselves outside mosques to photograph members as they entered and exited, and to record their license plate numbers. These activities occurred without any particularized suspicion of illegal activity by any member of the mosques, schools, groups, and businesses’ monitored.
As noted, the CIA aided the NYPD and other authorities in developing these surveillance programs. The CIA is prohibited by federal law from spying on U.S. citizens, so critics of the surveillance programs have questioned whether the CIA was doing an end-run around that prohibition by essentially using local police departments to do citizen spying for it. The FBI has also assisted the NYPD and other authorities in conducting surveillance of Muslims.
The surveillance reported by the Associated Press covered university and college campuses throughout the Northeast, including Yale, Rutgers, and the University of Pennsylvania. One enterprising undercover agent accompanied Muslim students at City College of New York on a whitewater rafting and camping trip in 2008, and reported that the students prayed and discussed religion during the trip.
A government report released in 2012 confirmed that agents had routinely monitored the email, blogs, and Internet activity of Muslim students on the campuses. A student at the University of Buffalo was the subject of a police report after she received an email announcement of a conference of Islamic scholars in Toronto. The student forwarded the announcement to Muslim chat group on Yahoo. She herself did not attend the conference and had no involvement in it.
In August 2013, state and local police departments in Chicago and other cities in Illinois called off a planned anti-terrorism training for officers. The departments pulled the training program, called "Islamic Awareness as a Counter-Terrorist Strategy,” after the Council on American-Islamic Relations (“CAIR”) objected to the training materials as containing stereotypes depicting Muslims as “inherently violent.” CAIR and other Muslim civil liberties groups pressed Florida police officials to call off similar trainings conducted by the same trainer. According to the Illinois law enforcement training agency website, the training there was intended to give officers “insight into the mindset of Islamic militants” and train them on techniques for differentiating “between moderate and radical persons.”
Practicing Muslims have reported feeling intimidated, shamed, and otherwise discouraged from openly engaging in religious observation, such as attending mosque services and praying. (“Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and Its Impact on American Muslims,” CUNY School of Law 2012 survey.) After learning that authorities had planted informers in their midst, some mosque members said that they felt suspicious of other members. Under the “religious freedom” clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the government is barred from “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion.
Critics of the surveillance programs have pointed out that, in addition to the potential unconstitutionality of the programs, the absence of solid evidence that spying on law-abiding citizens in what amounts to community “sweeps” are a waste of tax-payer money. These criticisms have great resonance with the public during times of budgetary shortfalls that are leading to great losses in public services.
And, with many serious law enforcement issues like epidemic gun violence plaguing Chicago and other cities, citizens also question whether the police are being diverted from more pressing and legitimate duties.
The mayor and chief of police of New York have made clear that they intend to continue the surveillance programs. It is possible that such programs are occurring in states that have not been disclosed by press reports. Meanwhile, the ACLU lawsuit against the NYPD program will work its way through the courts, perhaps leading to further insight or even modification of the program. Watch this site for developments in that case and in this issue.