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We Must Reform the NYPD Intelligence/Surveillance Program to Preserve Civil Liberties and Public Safety

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Like all New Yorkers, I want the NYPD working hard to keep us safe -- in our neighborhoods and across the city. We want them to have a robust counter-terrorism program that uses a mix of technology and human intelligence to investigate leads, and to seek to prevent attacks before the happen. But we must not sacrifice fundamental American freedoms, engage in racial and religious profiling, or disregard First Amendment rights for that cause.

Unfortunately, as the Associated Press has recently revealed in a series of investigative reports, in recent years the NYPD has engaged in widespread domestic surveillance targeting Muslim communities in neighborhoods throughout our city, sending undercover officers and informants to spy on mosques, cafes, barber shops, college campuses, even cricket matches in city parks, in most cases without real evidence that any crime was being committed or planned.

The FBI and CIA are prohibited from conducting clandestine domestic racial, ethnic, and religious profiling activities of this kind. Until 2002, the NYPD was similarly prevented from spying on city residents without evidence of specific criminal activity. The Handschu guidelines were put in place by the courts after it was discovered that the NYPD had been spying on anti-war, gay rights, and religious groups, using informants, wiretaps, and agents provocateurs in gathering over one million intelligence files on individuals and groups. In the wake of 9/11, those guidelines were loosened to permit surveillance without specific evidence of a crime.

The result has been a series of surveillance operations far beyond a specific threat -- with undercover officers and informants compiling information on every Moroccan restaurant and institution they could find, on every Muslim Students Association on CUNY campuses, and far beyond. These activities not only violate civil rights. They also break down the bonds of trust that are necessary for good policing. In one case, the NYPD spied on an imam who had openly embraced a partnership with the City and the NYPD, spoken out against terrorism, and welcomed the mayor and police commissioner into his mosque, again without any evidence of criminal activity or planning. Actions like this make us less safe.

In a City Council hearing last month, I put pointed questions to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly about the extent and nature of the NYPD's surveillance of Muslim New Yorkers. Unfortunately, Kelly's answers were confrontational and evasive, and only made me more convinced that the NYPD's surveillance program violates rights and jeopardizes trust.

At the national level, there is an oversight framework for surveillance activities by federal agencies to ensure that Americans remain safe and secure from terrorism without being subjected to targeting or profiling based on their ethnicity, religion, or political beliefs. Because the NYPD has correctly decided New York City requires an intelligence-gathering division on par with federal intelligence agencies, the City also needs a framework for appropriate oversight that is on par with the federal level. We need new standards so that the police cannot target communities, or spy on free speech activities without real and credible evidence. And we need thoughtful and appropriate oversight to make sure those standards are being followed.

I look forward to working with advocates and affected communities, colleagues in government, and the NYPD to make sure that we protect our city from terrorist attacks by those seeking to destroy our democracy without giving up the very freedoms that define our democracy.