NEW YORK -- "I'm laughing. I'm laughing on the phone right now," said Syed Farhaj Hassan. "That's hysterical."
That's how Hassan reacted when he heard that the New York City Police Department blames the press for exposing its Muslim surveillance program -- and not its own cops for running it.
Hassan is the lead plaintiff in an ongoing lawsuit by the non-profit group Muslim Advocates over the NYPD's extension of its spying program into New Jersey. The group dropped its latest filing in the case on Friday.
For Hassan, a 36-year-old resident of central New Jersey, the case is far more serious than the NYPD's legal arguments. It gets to the heart of why he joined the Army months before 9/11 and served his country in the Iraq War.
"I have always been patriotic," he said. "I have always loved being an American and I knew from a very long time ago that we ... were afforded a lot of rights and responsibilities." But the rights part of that equation was put in jeopardy, he said, when he found out about the NYPD's extensive post-9/11 program of surveillance of Muslim sites and neighborhoods from Queens to Newark.
In August 2011, the Associated Press began publishing a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of reports on the NYPD's surveillance practices. The AP revealed the department had sent its officers across state lines to surveil mosques, businesses and even a girls' school frequented by Muslims. When Hassan learned that the Masjid-e-Ali, a mosque in Somerset, N.J., that he regularly attended, was under the NYPD's gaze, he stopped going.
Months later, Hassan heard through a friend that Muslim Advocates was planning to sue the department and was looking for people whose lives had been affected by the spying program. He signed on as a plaintiff and began his legal journey when the case was filed in June 2012.
"I looked at it with the eyes of a soldier and I said I have to sign onto this, this is just the next step in my personal sense of what we believe in," Hassan said. "It really hit home."
In December, the NYPD moved to dismiss the lawsuit, saying it had done nothing wrong. Some legal experts have opined that Hassan and Muslim Advocates face an uphill battle in winning their case. As the NYPD pointed out in its filing, courts have ruled in the past that surveillance by itself, as long as there is no discriminatory intent, is constitutional.
The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment. In its December filing, the department said that the spying program was part of a "a non-discriminatory intent by the NYPD to deter and detect terrorism in the post-9/11 world," and that Hassan's "allegations of injury are based upon fears and speculation." Any actual injuries, the department added, were the fault of the AP for revealing the program -- the claim Hassan finds so funny.
Hassan still works with the Army's 304th Civil Affairs Brigade, and his response to the NYPD is simple: "I stopped going to a mosque because I was in fear that my security clearance would be in danger."
To Hassan and his lawyer, Glenn Katon, there could be no more obvious testament to the fact that his First Amendment religious rights were violated. In their latest filing, Katon said, Muslim Advocates argued that the religious freedom clauses of the First Amendment are different from those regarding free speech cited by the NYPD.
"There is no legitimate investigation here; this is just targeting people based on religion," Katon said. "The NYPD has never claimed they were investigating a crime or a potential crime when they went into New Jersey."
New Jerseyans, including Republican Gov. Chris Christie, were angered to find out that the NYPD had been crossing state lines to conduct its surveillance. So far, no corresponding lawsuit has been filed in New York City against the NYPD for its surveillance activities, but Katon noted a special, long-running legal framework for the NYPD called the Handschu decree complicates making a case in New York.
Hassan says his participation in the lawsuit isn't motivated by territorial pride -- or even solely by his religion.
"This is for everybody, this isn't just for Muslim Americans. This is for all Americans," he said. "This is just another way of my personal little bit to defend the Constitution."