NYPD Surveillance Revisited

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
When a senior White House national security official traveled to New York City recently to praise that city's police department, he stoked the embers of a controversy between the Administration and the Arab American and American Muslim communities. The official's words, quoted by the Associated Press (AP), "I have full confidence that the New York Police Department is doing things consistent with the law" and his terming the department's work a "success" were especially troubling coming as they did on the heels of the communities' entreaties to the White House to either open a civil rights investigation into the NYPD's surveillance program, or at the very least to express concern at the program's invasive over-reach.

Having the CIA team up with the NYPD to establish a domestic spying operation using undercover police officers and civilian "snitches,” who were suborned into service with threats of deportation or imprisonment, is bad enough, but a review of the fruits of all of this questionable activity also raises serious questions about the wastefulness of the entire effort.

Since the AP's initial revelations of the NYPD/CIA collaboration, less than one year ago, there has been some discussion of the degree to which the NYPD has made a mockery of the protections afforded by the Bill of Rights and has broken trust with New York's Arab and Muslim communities. What has not received sufficient attention is just how intrusive and at times pointless and inconsequential much of this program has been.

Some examples from the NYPD internal documents made public by the AP read more like reports prepared by the Syrian Mukhabarat (secret police). But what also comes through quite clearly are how downright silly much of the spying operation has been, more reminiscent, at times, of "the gang that couldn't shoot straight.” Among the most alarming observations are those found in the "Locations of Interest Reports" that were compiled on New York's Egyptian and Syrian communities. Produced by the NYPD "Intelligence Division-Demographic Unit,” the publications are stamped "SECRET" and have the following warning printed in bold red type on the cover:

"The information contained in this document is NYPD secret. No portion of this document can be copied or distributed without the exclusive permission of the Police Commissioner or Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence".

While all this build up makes the publications sound serious and important, an examination of their "top secret" content tells a different story.

Both reports begin with an overview establishing that their purpose is to provide "the maximum ability to gauge the general sentiment...and the greatest insight into the general activity of the community." The reports then proceed to "map" the areas of the city where the community in question lives and their "locations of interest"—these being defined as "locations individuals may frequent to search for ethnic companionship" or "hangouts...for listening to neighborhood gossip.”

After pages of demographic charts on Arab Americans, in general, and Egyptians, in particular (taken verbatim from a section of the Arab American Institute website), the reports go on to print pages of photos of every "location of interest" frequented by not just Egyptians and Syrians, but Lebanese, Palestinians, Yemenis, Moroccans, Algerians, and "Caucasians"(!).

Included in the report on each of these locations is such revealing information as: whether al Jazeera TV is watched at the location; whether Halal food is served; whether underage "Caucasians" were seen smoking at the establishment; and conversations overheard (including one I mentioned in an earlier column, where "Rasha, working in the travel agency recommended the Royal Jordanian Airlines!”).

These "locations of interest" books are not the only NYPD documents released by the AP that are filled with disturbing and shallow observations. Among the other questionable NYPD reports is the "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat,” a study by NYPD "Senior Intelligence Analysts.” In an effort to create a profile of Muslims who become radicalized, the analysts lay out four phases in the process. The first, "Pre-radicalization" includes individuals who share the following characteristics: male, under 35, residents and citizens of Western democracies, middle class, educated, recent converts, living "unremarkable" lives with "little, if any, criminal history.” What is so obviously troubling with this "profile,” which is supposed to guide the NYPD's work, is the fact that it includes almost all young Muslim males in the US. Helpful to law enforcement? Certainly not. Intimidating to Muslim Americans? Absolutely. As the great Latino leader U.S. Ambassador Raul Yzaguirre once said in criticizing ethnic profiling: "when you are looking for a needle in a haystack, don't keep adding more hay to the stack.”

The fundamental questions that should be asked, not just by the Administration, but by all Americans, are: "where do we draw the line that separates the rights of persons from the over-reach of law enforcement"; and "at what point do we conclude that the NYPD (with CIA collusion) has crossed the line and violated constitutionally protected freedoms and civil rights?

It is not clear to me how anyone could review the NYPD materials and conclude that the tactics of massive surveillance and ethnic and religious profiling employed have not crossed that line or that they have in any way contributed to making New Yorkers "safe.” What they have done is waste precious law enforcement resources. And as an exercise in heavy-handed police power, they have compromised the very security and basic rights of New York's large Arab immigrant communities.

All this should have been taken into consideration before the White House official lavished praise on the NYPD dismissing the concerns of the Arab and Muslim communities.

[Note: as for the reports' "SECRET" designation and warnings about their "official police use only,” I can conclude that these were intended merely to spare the NYPD the embarrassment of having them read by the public.]

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