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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Surveillance, Security and Civil Liberties

Surveillance, Security and Civil Liberties
The New York Times - EDITORIAL - March 3, 2012

Taking office not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly wisely decided to beef up the Police Department’s counterterrorism program significantly, to help federal law enforcement agencies avert another disaster. Unfortunately, they did not provide for sufficiently strong supervision of this formidable and far-flung intelligence operation — to check the well-known tendency of all such agencies, operating in secrecy and under murky rules, to abuse their powers. It appears that many thousands of law-abiding Muslim-Americans have paid a real price for that omission. A series of articles by The Associated Press has exposed constitutionally suspect surveillance of Muslims in New York, New Jersey, Long Island and beyond. Unearthed police records noticeably lack any apparent link to suspected criminal activity, or any obvious payoff for public safety. In particular, the A.P. reports revealed widespread police spying and the creation of police records containing information on Muslim people, mosques and campus groups, as well as luncheonettes, dollar stores and other legitimate businesses owned and frequented by Muslims, with no apparent reason to think anything wrong was going on. In mid-February, The A.P. disclosed that police officers systematically monitored the Web sites and blogs of Muslim student groups at N.Y.U., Columbia, Yale, Rutgers and a dozen other colleges. Documents show that an undercover agent accompanied 18 Muslim students from City College on a whitewater rafting trip in 2008. Dossier entries noted vital national security information — like the number of times they prayed.

Last week, The A.P. reported that plainclothes officers from the department’s euphemistically named Demographic Unit fanned out across Newark in 2007, snapping pictures of mosques and Muslim-owned businesses, listening to conversations, and gathering information about the makeup of mosque worshipers for an eerie 60-page internal police report stamped “NYPD Secret.” Similar reports were prepared on other Muslim neighborhoods. Newark’s mayor, Cory Booker, and the president of Rutgers University, Richard McCormick, have spoken out movingly about the wounds inflicted by these activities. Muslims in Newark and at Rutgers, they said, have become reluctant to pray openly at mosques, join in faith-based groups, or frequent Muslim hangouts for fear of being watched and possibly tarred by “guilt by association.” It is a distressing fact of life that mistreatment of Muslims does not draw nearly the protest that it should. But not just Muslims are threatened by this seemingly excessive warrantless surveillance and record-keeping. Today Muslims are the target. In the past it was protesters against the Vietnam War, civil rights activists, socialists. Tomorrow it will be another vulnerable group whose lawful behavior is blended into criminal activity. Mr. Bloomberg has reacted in the worst possible way — with disdain — to those raising legitimate questions about the surveillance program. Asking about its legality, and about whether alienating innocent Muslims is a smart or decent strategy, does not translate into being soft on terrorism, or failing to appreciate that it is a dangerous world. The mayor insists that the actions reported by The A.P. were “legal,” “appropriate” and “constitutional.” He also says the police were only “following leads.” But he has yet to explain what sort of leads, why they justify police surveillance of so many Muslims, or whether the type of surveillance depicted in the news reports continues. Under a federal court decree, it is permissible to collect information from public sources. But going to public places apparently selected on the basis of religion and recording information having nothing to do with terrorism — including religious and political views expressed in mosques and campus gatherings — is another matter. Officials like Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Senator Charles Schumer and the City Council speaker, Christine Quinn, should be urging the Police Department to be less grudging about supplying information that would aid public understanding, instead of racing to give the police a pass. We welcome last week’s statement by Attorney General Eric Holder that the Justice Department is beginning to review complaints about the N.Y.P.D.’s surveillance of Muslim and Arab communities to determine whether a full civil rights investigation is warranted. The review’s prompt completion should be a priority. Meantime, we are wondering what happened to the Michael Bloomberg who stood up for fairness and religious freedom by backing a proposed Muslim community center near ground zero. We hope that mayor re-emerges soon to restore trust.

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