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2012-05-25

As New Jersey OKs NYPD Surveillance, Muslim Groups Continue Challenge to "Unconstitutional" Program

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A three-month review by New Jersey’s attorney general has concluded the New York City Police Department did not violate state laws when they conducted extensive surveillance of Muslim communities with help from the CIA. The review’s finding means Muslims will have no recourse to state law to prevent the NYPD from monitoring and cataloging their daily life. The decision has angered Muslim groups who were seeking an end to the intrastate police operations and surveillance throughout the Northeast. We get reaction from Gadeir Abbas, staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: A three-month review of New York City Police Department operations in New Jersey has concluded that they did not violate state laws when they conducted extensive surveillance of Muslim communities. The ruling by New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa means Muslims will have no recourse to state law to prevent the NYPD from monitoring and cataloging their daily life. The decision has angered Muslim groups who were seeking an end to the cross-border police operations.

The Associated Press first revealed how a once-covert NYPD surveillance program targeting Muslims had extended far beyond New York and throughout the Northeast. The Associated Press reports exposed the vast operation built by the NYPD to monitor Muslim neighborhoods after 9/11.

AMY GOODMAN: The revelation sparked a national controversy as more details revealed that hundreds of mosques, businesses and Muslim student groups were investigated, monitored, in many cases infiltrated. Police used informants known as mosque crawlers to monitor sermons, even without any evidence of wrongdoing. Also falling under the NYPD’s scrutiny were imams, cab drivers, food cart vendors.

According to the Associated Press, which won the Pulitzer Prize for its reports, many of these operations were built with help from the CIA, which is prohibited from spying on Americans. In the process, the New York Police Department became, one of the nation’s most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies, targeting ethnic communities in ways that would run afoul of civil liberties rules if practiced by the federal government.

For more, we’re going to the Washington, D.C., studio to talk with Gadeir Abbas, staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Gadeir Abbas, thank you for joining us. The New York—the New Jersey attorney general finding that what the NYPD did in New Jersey was not illegal, your response?

GADEIR ABBAS: Well, luckily, the attorney general’s opinion on what is lawful and what is not unlawful has no bearing on an individual’s constitutional rights in the U.S.. So, the First Amendment right to exercise your faith, the equal protection under law that the 14th Amendment provides you, those are things that the attorney general’s opinion, frankly, is not germane to determining. The NYPD program, let’s remember, is based on the notion that we are going—the NYPD is going to cast suspicion on Muslims because they’re Muslims. And that sends an unmistakable message to the community at large that Islam and Muslims are somehow inherently, because of their faith, a danger to America. And that is a violation of the First Amendment. And so, whatever the attorney general’s opinion is, that doesn’t change the fact that the rights that the Constitution gives us belong to people and not to the attorney general of New Jersey.

AARON MATÉ: Let’s go to an excerpt of the video that accompanied the first AP report on the NYPD program.

AP REPORT: At this New Brunswick, New Jersey, apartment, an alarming scene was found inside unit 1076: terrorist literature strewn about and a wealth of computer and surveillance equipment. But this wasn’t the command center of a terrorist cell. The materials belonged to a secret team of NYPD intelligence officers, a unit operating miles outside its jurisdiction.

AARON MATÉ: Now, Gadeir Abbas, what do you know were the actions that the NYPD conducted in New Jersey?

GADEIR ABBAS: So, for instance, in Newark, New Jersey, the NYPD conducted a wide-ranging program of mapping the Muslim community. So this involved analyzing what the Muslim community comprised—its institutions, the businesses that cater to the Muslim community—and conducted what is essentially a comprehensive analysis of the Muslim community in Newark. And in order to conduct this analysis, that involved, in Newark and in other place, placing informants in mosques, as well as deploying NYPD officers to take pictures of those mosques, to write down license plate numbers of cars parked in those mosques, and to be what the NYPD has termed "on their listening post," so NYPD officers and informants strategically placed throughout the community, not to uncover criminal wrongdoing, but to establish an infrastructure of continuously monitoring the community. And that is what has caused such a negative effect on the Muslim community in New Jersey, in New York and beyond.

It’s the case that when you monitor a community, that affects the ability of that community to function, because what one does in private and what one does when there isn’t a reason to believe the government is watching is different than what one does when the government is watching. And for years, since September 11th, American Muslims everywhere, in the New Jersey and New York area included, have long harbored the suspicion that the government and law enforcement is listening. And the revelations of the NYPD program really confirm that, yes, in fact, law enforcement is listening. And it’s not only a violation of American Muslims’ constitutional rights, but it is an egregious waste of resources that the NYPD is spending time and money monitoring the innocuous religious exercise of the Muslim community in New Jersey, in New York and beyond.

AMY GOODMAN: Gadeir, earlier this year, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg addressed students at Yale University. He defended the NYPD’s surveillance program.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: We have to keep this country safe. This is a dangerous place. Make no mistake about it. It’s very cute to go and to blame everybody and say we should stay away from anything that smacks of intelligence gathering. The job of our law enforcement is to make sure that they prevent things, and you only do that to—by being proactive. You have to respect people’s right to privacy. You have to obey the law. And I think the police officers across this country, and at a federal level, state level and city level, do that. But having said all of that, you have to—you do not want to—you are not going to survive, you will not be able to be a journalist and write what you want to say, if the people who want to take away your freedoms are allowed to succeed.

AMY GOODMAN: That was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, interestingly, speaking at Yale, where students were under surveillance, objected to by the Yale president when he learned of this, Richard Levin, who issued a statement. Gadeir Abbas, your response to Mayor Bloomberg?

GADEIR ABBAS: I think it’s worth exploring the assumptions of Mayor Bloomberg’s statement. His thought is that we need to be preventing acts of violence rather than reacting to them. But understand what he’s proposing and what he has enacted in reality is Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD believe in order to prevent acts of violence, there needs to be a substantially pervasive monitoring of the Muslim community in New York City and New Jersey. And that carries with it the unmistakable belief that many in law enforcement—and Mayor Bloomberg seems to have this idea, as well—that the Muslim community and Islam itself is somehow predisposed to creating and fomenting acts of political violence. And that’s a notion that is unfortunately bolstered by organizations and anti-Muslim figures that constantly put out this idea that Muslims and Islam is a threat. So, we really need to explore what is underlying Mayor Bloomberg’s vacuous statement, because at the end of the day this has great implications for not only the American Muslim community inside of itself, but also the American Muslim community’s relationships with law enforcement, its relationship with government.

Since 9/11 and even before, the Muslim community has been an outspoken and strong ally in the fight against terrorism. And when law enforcement, instead of partnering with the Muslim community, decides to create a network of informants and infiltrators that constantly are monitoring the innocent exercise of Islam in America, that undermines a partnership that is important and vital to protecting America from those that want to actually do it harm. And Mayor Bloomberg has created a program that has conducted analytical assessments of mosques within a hundred-mile radius of New York City. And it’s led to such objectionable actions as an undercover informant—an undercover agent of the FBI—of the NYPD going on a camping trip with MSA students. Nineteen-, 20-, 21-year-olds go on a camping trip, and an NYPD officer goes with them, writes down how often they pray, whether they talk about Islam or not. That report and that action doesn’t make anybody any safer. And it has the effect of sending the message to society that Islam is inherently predisposed to violence, and it also undermines the trust in the community that is a necessary part of that community functioning.

AARON MATÉ: Well, Gadeir, this story broke last year, and it took many months, but finally, earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed that the Justice Department would review the surveillance. But I’m wondering now—so you have this review at the federal level, but what can the Muslim community do to respond right now?

GADEIR ABBAS: Yeah, so, the conversations regarding the Muslim community’s response to the NYPD program have been going on since August, and are going on today and have gone on yesterday. And individuals that have been subject to this surveillance program obviously possess the constitutional rights to challenge the NYPD’s program. And that is—those conversations are happening. And at some point, those rights will be asserted and likely adjudicated.

But beyond that, so the Muslim community not only has a problem with the surveillance that the NYPD is subjecting it to, but it also has a problem with the surveillance that other law enforcement agents, such as the FBI, are subjecting it to, because the idea that there should be a ongoing monitoring of Islam in America is not an idea that the NYPD came up with by itself, and it’s not an idea that they possess exclusively. Unfortunately, law enforcement across the country has taken the approach that wherever there is a mosque, wherever there is a Muslim, there is a danger of acts of political violence. And that is a misguided notion. And ultimately, it will be up to the American Muslim community to mobilize itself and stand up and push back against this, because it is not an acceptable way to conduct law enforcement in America. It does have great ramifications for the American Muslim community and beyond. And it will ultimately—because the American Muslim community is essentially the leading edge of being subject to these misguided, unconstitutional practices, it will be the contribution of the American Muslim community to revitalize these notions of restraints on law enforcement that have been lost.

AMY GOODMAN: But, Gadeir Abbas, what does it mean that the attorney general of New Jersey now has said that nothing was illegal, as we come back to the original question?

GADEIR ABBAS: Yeah, yeah. All it means is that the state of New Jersey will not be intervening in the matter. And I don’t think that there were many in our community that were holding their breath for that outcome. There is not necessarily a reason to believe that this is something that a government official or a politician is going to take it upon themselves to handle. This is something that American Muslims have known for some time, that it’s really up to them to mobilize the resources and energies and talents of the community to push back against these types of surveillance tactics.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, final comments—in the Wall Street Journal today, New Jersey’s FBI chief, Michael Ward, was critical of the NYPD for not conducting the operations within the umbrella of the Joint Terrorism Task Force. He said the actions undermined the bureau’s own efforts by sowing distrust of authorities among Muslims and weakened national security.

And interestingly, in February, though he’s accepted this report, Governor Christie of New Jersey said, "I know they think their jurisdiction is the world." He’s talking about the New York Police Department. "Their jurisdiction is New York City. My concern is this kind of affectation that the NYPD seems to have that they are the masters of the universe."

Gadeir Abbas, I want to thank you very much for being with us, staff attorney for the Council on American Islamic-Relations, speaking to us from Washington, D.C. When we come back, we go to Quebec, where massive student protests have been going on for a hundred days. This week, 400,000 students in the streets, nearly a thousand arrests. Stay with us.

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