NYPD spying on Muslims turns up nothing

Some time ago, I wrote about this program by the New York Police Department to infiltrate Muslim organizations including “student organizations on college campuses outside their jurisdiction and even outside their state. The names of students taking part in such things as white water rafting are deemed worthy of entering in their files if they pray several times a day or discuss Islam, though you would expect that a Muslim student group would do just these things.” Merely speaking Urdu or frequenting a Lebanese café could trigger suspicions and your conversations recorded.

After six years of such spying on perfectly innocent people and entering their names into databases, it turns out that not a single lead about any dangerous plans or actions were uncovered.

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.

Attorney Jethro Eisenstein, who filed the Handschu case more than 40 years ago and questioned Galati during the deposition, said he will go back to court soon to ask that the Demographics Unit be shut down. It operates today under a new name, the Zone Assessment Unit. It recently stopped operating out of state, Galati said.

“This is a terribly pernicious set of policies,” Eisenstein said. “No other group since the Japanese Americans in World War II has been subjected to this kind of widespread public policy.”

Thanks to this program, now thousands of Muslims have had their names entered into a database that could flag them down for higher-level security searches or even to end up on a no-fly lists.


  1. jamessweet says

    This kind of thing cannot be publicized enough. Sometimes it seems like there is a tradeoff to make between freedom and safety, when really the method being proposed sacrifices freedom with no benefit. Not there isn’t sometimes a legitimate tradeoff, but too often you get something like torture, where it would be ethical dicey if it works but it doesn’t work; or this kind of profiling, where we might weigh the cost of innocent people being placed under surveillance vs. the benefit of catching the bad guys if it actually caught any bad guys.

    It becomes a lot easier to unequivocally oppose racial profiling, torture, unrestricted government surveillance, etc., when it just doesn’t actually work.

  2. Jared A says

    The only surprising thing is that no one in the demographics unit did the usual entrapment ruses to justify their own existence.

  3. F says

    No, in fact, Muslims tend to foil the fake terrorist plots of the FBI and other law enforcement. If it wasn’t so unbelievably awful, it would be hilarious.

  4. psweet says

    We (and they?) say that they were spying on Muslims, but they were actually spying on anyone who comes from a predominantly Muslim country, or who so much as associates with people who do.

  5. Corvus illustris says

    “If it wasn’t so unbelievably awful, it would be hilarious.” Actually it did have its comic-opera or Keystone Cops aspects:

    Police also were interested in the Muslim student group at Rutgers, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In 2009, undercover NYPD officers had a safe house in an apartment not far from campus. The operation was blown when the building superintendent stumbled upon the safe house and, thinking it was some sort of a terrorist cell, called the police emerency dispatcher …

    The link in the first sentence of the post leads to more of the story. Adding to the tale of incompetence is the fact–apparently unknown to the NYPD–that central NJ has a huge south and central Asian population, some Muslim and some not, but relatively few of whose members are connected with Rutgers University or the medical school.

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