We now know that the NYPD’s once secret program that for years spied on Muslims, striking a justified fear into the community’s core, never gleaned a single lead or terrorism-related investigation. In court testimony released last week the police official who oversees the controversial Demographics Unit admitted that the massive operation to spy on Mosques and Muslim community spaces led to no measureable benefit to public safety.
In a deposition taken on June 28 as part of civil rights litigation involving the surveillance program, Intelligence Chief Thomas Galati said "Related to Demographics," the information collected "has not commenced an investigation."
But more than a week after the acknowledgement, the city seems as convinced as ever that public safety relies on police regularly watching and documenting the movements, religious practices, conversations, name changes and student activities of New York’s Muslim communities. As the deposition made absolutely clear, the NYPD continues to operate within the confines of a belief that Muslims, by virtue of being Muslim, are prone to acts of terrorist violence and must be watched at all times.
After the Associated Press revealed the NYPD’s Muslim spying program in an investigation last year, city officials justified the program on the basis that it’s helped foil acts of terrorism– 14 acts of terrorism to be precise. Back in March, I called this claim into question, finding that few of the the named plots had indeed been stopped by the NYPD and those the cops played a part in foiling relied on the use of informants who essentially entrapped vulnerable men, pulling them into terrorist plots that were never to come to fruition and then jailing the men.
At first, the city flatly denied the existence of the Demographics Unit. After it was unveiled, officials claimed the program only followed legitimate leads. At intrevals, city leaders have been more honest, like when Mayor Bloomberg said on a NYC radio talk show, "When there’s no lead, you’re just trying to get familiar with what’s going on, where people might go and where people might be to say something."
In 2010, possibly with the foresight to guess that a section called the Demographics Unit dedicated to watching Muslims would not easily get past advocates and civil rights groups, the NYPD changed the program’s name. It’s now called the Zone Assessment Unit.
Diala Shamas is a staff attorney with the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility, or CLEAR project at the CUNY law school. She says that little has changed in the city since the program began. Mosque congregants and Muslim students she’s interviewed say that they still live in fear that they’re being watched, followed, and scrutinized.
"This sort of program results in a breakdown of community trust," Shamas said. "Regardless of the minor changes in the program’s names, [the NYPD] certainly has not stepped back from the underlying rationale that American Muslims should be monitored and infiltrated even in the absence of any suspicious activity or criminal leads."
That rationale, the one that undergirds the whole apparatus of spying and surveillance but has made the city no more safe, derives from a world view that Muslims are dangerous, their eruption into violence only a matter of time.
As I wrote previously:
In 2007, the NYPD released a report called "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat." It articulates a broad rationale for spying on Muslim community spaces, including "cafes, cab driver hangouts, flophouses, prisons, student associations, non-governmental organizations, hookah bars, butcher shops and book shops." It essentially holds that Islamic religious practice, or even the plain congregation of Muslims, can lead to radicalization and violence.
Michael Price is legal counsel with the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Project. He says the radicalization report is the intellectual foundation for what the demographics unit does. "The theory is that all Muslims are terrorists and if they’re not now they will be; if you just hang out in the places that Muslims are, you will unveil terrorist plots."
Indeed, the Galati deposition is a litany of justification based deeply in this idea.
Here are some of the most telling lines, including this one where Galati calls Muslims "Islamics," as he does repeatedly:
The [Demographic Unit’s] responsibilities was to collect information on areas so that we can identify countries of concern, where people that were being radicalized towards violence, Islamics radicalized towards violence.
In one anecdote that was supposed to be redacted from the transcript but which Mother Jones’s Adam Serwer discovered last week could be easily cut from the document posted by the plaintiffs and pasted as legible text, Galati said that anger over a Quran burning justified surveillance and collecting information about the speaker. In the anecdote, a Demographics Unit cop:
overheard a conversation between two Pakistani males who were conversing in Urdu. One male stated in Urdo (sic), ‘This is unbelievable, that New Jersey Transit Worker who got fired for burning the Holy Quran by Ground Zero was rehired last week’.
As Marcy Wheeler wrote over at Emtywheel.com, the deposition displays a near total disregard for free speech protections for Muslims discussing politics and US foreign policy. "One of the most fascinating moments in the deposition of the NYPD’s Intelligence Chief," Wheeler blogged, "comes when he discusses what kinds of political conversations might be recorded by the NYPD.":
I would say that if there was an event in the world that resulted in some type of violence or disruption, anywhere in the World or within the state that was related to terrorism activity, yes, they would go. They would basically see if it’s going to have any implications in New York City.
Galati said a discussion about drone strikes justified surveillance:
If we deployed them because of an event that took place in a particular part of the world, a drone attack, we would want to know and we would instruct them that people are upset about this drone attack. If they are, that’s something that would be important for us to know, that would be something we would want to know.
And repeatedly Galati said his team targets people on the basis of the language they speak:
I’m seeing Urdu. I’m seeing them identify the individuals involved in that are Pakistani. I’m using that information for me to determine that this would be a kind of place that a terrorist would be comfortable in … Most Urdu speakers from that region would be of concern, so that’s why it’s important to me.
As the AP noted, "About 15 million Pakistanis and 60 million Indians speak Urdu. Along with English, it is one of the national languages of Pakistan."
The NYPD’s continued targeting of huge swaths of the city on the basis of language, ethnicity and religion have left a mark, says Shamas. "The programs have damaged the community’s relationships with law enforcement, and alienated individuals from law enforcement. Simply, many Muslims don’t feel that NYPD protects them, rather they feel besieged by it."