NYPD Spying on Muslims Does No Good

For many years, the NYPC denied the existence of an investigative unit that tracked nearly every Muslim in the city. Then they admitted that they had such a unit but insisted that it was absolutely crucial to stopping terrorism. But now a high ranking official in the department has admitted under oath that it did not lead even to a single investigation, much less prevent any attacks.

In more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques, the New York Police Department’s secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation, the department acknowledged in court testimony unsealed late Monday.

The Demographics Unit is at the heart of a police spying program, built with help from the CIA, which assembled databases on where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed. Police infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques, monitored sermons and catalogued every Muslim in New York who adopted new, Americanized surnames.

Police hoped the Demographics Unit would serve as an early warning system for terrorism. And if police ever got a tip about, say, an Afghan terrorist in the city, they’d know where he was likely to rent a room, buy groceries and watch sports.

But in a June 28 deposition as part of a longstanding federal civil rights case, Assistant Chief Thomas Galati said none of the conversations the officers overheard ever led to a case.

“Related to Demographics,” Galati testified that information that has come in “has not commenced an investigation.”…

“I never made a lead from rhetoric that came from a Demographics report, and I’m here since 2006,” he said. “I don’t recall other ones prior to my arrival. Again, that’s always a possibility. I am not aware of any.”

Galati, the commanding officer of the NYPD Intelligence Division, offered the first official look at the Demographics Unit, which the NYPD denied ever existed when it was revealed by the AP last year. He described how police gather information on people even when there is no evidence of wrongdoing, simply because of their ethnicity and native language.

As a rule, Galati said, a business can be labeled a “location of concern” whenever police can expect to find groups of Middle Easterners there.

Here’s an example of the kinds of broad profiling the unit did, targeting anyone merely for speaking a particular language:

In one instance discussed in the testimony, plainclothes NYPD officers known as “rakers” overheard two Pakistani men complaining about airport security policies that they believed unfairly singled out Muslims. They bemoaned what they saw as the nation’s anti-Muslim sentiment since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Galati said police were allowed to collect that information because the men spoke Urdu, a fact that could help police find potential terrorists in the future.

“I’m seeing Urdu. I’m seeing them identify the individuals involved in that are Pakistani,” Galati explained. “I’m using that information for me to determine that this would be a kind of place that a terrorist would be comfortable in.”

He added, “Most Urdu speakers from that region would be of concern, so that’s why it’s important to me.”

About 15 million Pakistanis and 60 million Indians speak Urdu. Along with English, it is one of the national languages of Pakistan.

In another example, Galati said, eavesdropping on a conversation in a Lebanese cafe could be useful, even if the topic is innocuous. Analysts might be able to determine that the customers were from South Lebanon, he said, adding, “That may be an indicator of possibility that that is a sympathizer to Hezbollah because Southern Lebanon is dominated by Hezbollah.”

The 4th amendment requires particularized suspicion and probable cause. This is no different from eavesdropping on anyone who came from Northern Ireland because there is a history of terrorism there. It’s just not constitutional. But the important thing here is this: We hear constantly from the government that we must sometimes give up a little liberty and privacy in order to have security. But there is no tradeoff here; there was no boost in security, only the diminishing of some of the bedrock principles of the constitution.

Comments

  1. Chiroptera says

    NYPD Spying on Muslims Does No Good

    Hey, it makes them feel like second-class citizens and reminds them that they are a despised minority! How is that not full of win?

  2. wscott says

    It sounds like both the examples listed might have been overheard in public places. (Granted, I don’t have all the facts, but assuming for purposes of argument.) If that’s the case, then the speakers may have had limited-to-no legitimate expectation of privacy, in which case a warrant wouldn’t have been required, right?

    I’m not defending the practice, which is at a minimum a god-awful waste of taxpayer money. Just clarifying the legalities. I believe there are other laws prohibiting law enforcement agencies from collecting information pursuant to civil rights issues, but I’m less familiar with those.

  3. Eric Ressner says

    It’s just not constitutional. But the important thing here is this: We hear constantly from the government that we must sometimes give up a little liberty and privacy in order to have security. But there is no tradeoff here; there was no boost in security, only the diminishing of some of the bedrock principles of the constitution.

    No, the important thing here is that “it’s just not constitutional.” This is just like the argument against torture: that it doesn’t work. I think we’ve been pretty vociferous in the progressosphere that, works or not, torture is illegal, immoral, and insane.

  4. laurentweppe says

    I think we’ve been pretty vociferous in the progressosphere that, works or not, torture is illegal, immoral, and insane.

    Of course: but it’s insane precisely because it doesn’t work, the argument that it is a necessary evil being a despicable lie meant to disguise the sadistic desire to inflict crippling pain to everyone one dislikes makes it immoral and it’s illegal because it’s immorality and insanity are established facts.

  5. Homo Straminus says

    “We hear constantly from the government that we must sometimes give up a little liberty and privacy in order to have security.”

    That is what we hear, but what seems to be revealed time and again is that what actually happens is that we unknowingly lose all our liberty and privacy in order to have the appearance of security. And they go about it in a completely farcical and ineffective manner.

  6. Michael Heath says

    Homo Straminus:

    That is what we hear, but what seems to be revealed time and again is that what actually happens is that we unknowingly lose all our liberty and privacy in order to have the appearance of security. And they go about it in a completely farcical and ineffective manner.

    Well I think our efforts have been largely effective from a containment perspective, however I’d add those efforts have also been incredibly expensive and don’t address the root cause reasons which give rise to Muslim terrorists. And also expensive from an opportunity cost perspective because it has miserably failing to sufficiently invest and expend in other areas far more strategically imperative – like transforming the labor market to one well-suited to a global market and mitigating climate change.

  7. Homo Straminus says

    Michael Heath: “Well I think our efforts have been largely effective from a containment perspective, ”

    Ay, there’s the rub, and a large part of what you view as the misguided calling-out of Obama’s “most transparent ever” administration. Unless and until they are willing to disseminate verifiable facts about how policies like these have actually done any good, then I will remain highly critical of them.

    I would find it extremely hard to claim that “our efforts have been effective from a containment perspective” (although I may not be interpreting the statement as you intend). The U.S. has never been a hotbed of terrorism, so to me saying the above is like saying, “it hardly ever rains in July, but thanks to our efforts, it hardly ever rains in July!” I have not seen (and am not sure how one would produce) research showing that Islamic terrorist plots have increased or decreased since 2001. The instinct that I share with others is that they’ve gone up because of how wildly disproportionate our response has been. And yet, as you point out, instead of attempting to address root causes, we get Keystone Cops nonsense like the above example.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the rest of your comment.

  8. Ichthyic says

    NYPD Spying on Muslims Does No Good

    it’s like they think that the best counter-terrorism… is terrorism.

  9. Ichthyic says

    I have not seen (and am not sure how one would produce) research showing that Islamic terrorist plots have increased or decreased since 2001.

    agreed. there’s little evidence of “containment”.

    in fact, if we take Europe as the example, then “containment” not only has failed, but has had the exact OPPOSITE effect on terrorist activity.

    but then IMO the promulgation of fear tactics has been enabled and promoted by both West and East for decades now. We’re just beginning to see the end result.

    the idea that this is being “contained” is laughable; the use of fear and terrorism politically, economically, and tactically appears to be accelerating at breakneck pace globally.

  10. eoleen says

    Ummmm….. I think that you will find that what NYPD was doing vis-a-vis the Muslims is very much what they were doing – and continue doing – to various other groups that have come to their attention by having organized criminal groups in them. Just a fer instance: NYPD (and other agencies) have tracked Italians for many decades. Reason? the Mafia. Hispanic groups (such as Columbians) – for drug trafficking.

    The “tracking” consists of knowing who lives where, owns what businesses, etc., so that they have some idea as to where to place resources dedicated to interfering with criminal activities. If they didn’t they’d have to start from scratch each time.

    It is really not much different from the neighborhood knowledge garnered by the cop on the beat (I;m dating myself), who knew who lived where, who shopped where, who ran what stores, etc. etc., and was thus able to spot abnormal activity in time to prevent crime.

    What we are doing now is simply recording the information and making it available to a far larger group of law enforcement people.

    I’m not at all unhappy to have my local precinct aware of what goes on im my neighborhood: this way, if they know what happens “legitimately”, and what doesn’t, they have a better than average chance of catching the crooks who target my house when I’m away…

  11. Chiroptera says

    eoleen, #15: I’m not at all unhappy to have my local precinct aware of what goes on im my neighborhood….

    Especially when the targets for obervation are groups to which you don’t belong, eh?

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