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Who Is Watching Who and Why?

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Domestic Drones and Spies in Mosques

Americans have become remarkably careless about their civil liberties -- issues that previous generations fought and died for, like the right to vote and the right to religious freedom with liberty and justice for all. The United States today is home to millions of immigrants and their families who fled their own countries because of their fear of secret police, the dreaded knock on the door in the middle of the night, arrest without trial, surveillance by the Gestapo, the Mukhabarat, the Stasi, or the KGB and now the morals police of the Taliban. It is outrageous that some of these communities should now be under surveillance today in the "land of the free."

But where is the outrage? There is a huge presence of apathy and complacency in the land, with people ignoring abuses of civil liberties as long as it is happening to the "other" -- immigrant communities of a different religion, language, color or documentation. Courageous minority voices still speak up in their defense, but there is a disturbing acceptance of practices that seem totally un-American. Torture, arrest without trial and surveillance without cause are being justified because people are afraid and these practices are deemed to be keeping America safe from terrorism.

The recent revelations about the role of NYPD and the CIA in monitoring Arab and Muslim communities in New York and New Jersey would be almost amusing if it were not so sinister. Secret reports have been filed containing trite and irrelevant information such as -- "Observed a female named Rasha working in the travel agency -- she recommended the Royal Jordanian Airline." In spite of the Attorney General's assurance that police should only monitor activity when there is a basis to believe that something inappropriate is occurring or potentially could occur, this intrusive police surveillance of Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian and Shi'a Muslim communities clearly falls outside these guidelines.

Trust have been broken. Fear and suspicion has been generated; prejudice and negative perceptions have been reinforced. That this is totally counter-productive in the search for terrorists seems to have escaped the notice of the NYPD and the CIA and their blundering spying in mosques and meeting places is not only an enormous waste of public resources, it is a violation of fundamental rights of citizens to be free of intrusive government surveillance as they go about their everyday activities.

James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute, warned in a recent blog post that if these rights are overlooked for Muslim Americans, "then these rights may ultimately be threatened for all Americans."

Certainly the surveillance tactics of the NYPD have been criticized by the FBI as harming the fight against terrorism, and the efficacy of such tactics has been challenged by the FBI special agent in charge of the Newark office, Michael B. Ward, who said there is a distinction between effective intelligence gathering and that which has no specific relationship to counterterrorism.

Targeting specific communities breaks down the bonds of trust necessary for good intelligence gathering and while we need programs that keep American citizens safe, it is clear that the NYPD's recent actions are counter-productive. They should not be sending undercover officers into mosques and student groups posing as members when they are not investigating a specific lead to a potential crime. They should not target specific communities or organizations based on religion as these practices jeopardize both our safety and our liberties.

The history of infiltration by the FBI of US political and cultural movements shows that this is not a new phenomenon. Organizations for women's rights, civil rights, anti-war and peace movements, and the New Left have all been infiltrated over the years by informants for purposes of disruption and political repression, in spite of the US insistence on "freedom of speech." The ACLU reports that "Today the government is spying on Americans in ways the founders of our country could never have imagined."

In the post 9/11 world, with record intelligence budgets and a massive new homeland security bureaucracy, it is hardly surprising that spying has become more intensive. Infiltration to gather intelligence and intentionally disrupt and break up social movements cab be seen in the latest attempts to control and discredit the Occupy movement. And now the next outrage is the use of drones to "keep us safe." This comes from the ACLU website:

U.S. law enforcement has been expanding its use of domestic drones for surveillance purposes. This type of routine aerial surveillance in American life would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States. Rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a "surveillance society" in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities. Drone manufacturers are also considering offering police the option of arming these remote-controlled aircraft with (nonlethal for now) weapons like rubber bullets, Tasers, and tear gas.

It is not only the ACLU which is concerned about the U.S. becoming a police state, but two prominent Democratic Senators are speaking out against the Obama administration's secret interpretation of the Patriot Act. Senator Ron Wyden and Senator Mark Udall have made public their letter to Attorney General Holder, dated March 15, 2012, expressing their concern about the gap between "what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows."

The letter goes on; "Americans expect their government to operate within the bounds of publicly-understood law, and as voters they have a need and a right to know how the law is being interpreted, so that they can ratify or reject decisions made on their behalf."

The Senators note that they have become "increasingly skeptical about the actual value of the intelligence collection operation" and while they appreciate that certain intelligence has to be kept secret, in case it aids the enemy, they feel it is not the charge of the executive agency to determine this, but the responsibility rests with policy makers.

Senators Wyden and Udall have become overnight champions of our civil liberties and Americans should be pleased that someone is taking up the cause of protecting citizens against an overreaching administration and Justice Department. Perhaps more citizens will appreciate the need to exercise their right to vote this coming presidential election and become better informed about what their choice means. The Patriot Act still "belongs to" the previous Bush administration but it is long past time it was brought into the sunshine of closer scrutiny and oversight. Only then will Muslims be able to worship without wondering if their fellow worshipper is a police spy or not; and only then will a Muslim travel agent be able to recommend a flight to Jordan without having it noted down by a zealous incompetent surveillance agent motivated by a stance which is contrary to core American principles of democracy.

In the meantime, we know who is spying on who, but the question is still open -- but why?

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Lecturer at the University of Chicago, Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale. He obtained his PhD from Cambridge University.

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