The massive surveillance program implemented by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) in coordination with CIA officials is shredding the Constitution, putting at risk the rights and freedoms of Arab Americans and American Muslims. If left unchecked, their behavior will weaken the foundations of our democracy and seriously compromise our values as an open and inclusive society.
Revelations by the Associated Press have established that the NYPD, working with a few CIA officials, has been monitoring Arab and Muslim-owned businesses, mosques, and "mapping" areas of the city where high concentrations of Muslims and Arab immigrants are known to live. In order to accomplish these objectives, the NYPD has coerced and entrapped Muslims to act as spies.
In one instance, the police scoured records of taxi drivers looking for those who had unpaid tickets and other violations. Those who also had immigration status issues were given the option of acting as spies or facing possible deportation. Once turned into informants, they were then asked to go to popular gathering places (coffee shops, stores, etc.), attend religious services, and other community events in order to report on who was present and what was said. This material has been entered into extensive surveillance files, even when the activities attended and the words spoken have been innocent and protected by the First Amendment.
The reports which have been compiled and are categorized as "SECRET" are, at best, trite. At the same time, they are dangerous, since they represent ethnic profiling at its worst and an extension of the long arm of the state into the normal everyday activity of an entire community.
One report, for example, on "Egyptian Locations of Interest" purports to map "centers of activity" or "hangouts" for Egyptian Americans that can be used as "listening posts" where informants can go to "listen to neighborhood gossip...[and] get a feel for the community." The report goes on to present a demographic profile of where persons of Egyptian descent live in New York City and describes, with pictures attached, all of the restaurants and other businesses where Egyptians and other Arab immigrants to the city congregate or shop. [There is another similar report on "Syrian Locations of Concern" which includes such noteworthy information about a travel agency as -- "Observed a female named 'Rasha' working in the travel agency, she recommended the 'Royal Jordanian Airline.'"]
While it is expected that law enforcement should be on guard and should be proactive in countering potential threats, as Attorney General Eric Holder has said, police should only monitor activity "when there is a basis to believe that something inappropriate is occurring or potentially could occur." The "SECRET" reports on the Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian, and Shi'a Muslim communities which have been leaked and released by the AP clearly violate Holder's criterion.
As disturbing as this behavior has been, is outright denial by New York officials that anything untoward has occurred and the public's apparent tolerance for these flagrant violations of rights. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly claims that "the value we place on privacy rights and constitutional protections is part of what motivates the work of counterterrorism. It would be counterproductive in the extreme if we violated those freedoms in the course of our work to defend New York." For his part, Mayor Michael Bloomberg denies that any profiling is involved saying "we don't stop to think about religion. We stop to think about the threats and focus our efforts there," ignoring the statements in the beginning of each of the "SECRET" reports that they are targeting specific ethnic and religious communities. Finally, a recent poll of residents of the City concluded that "New Yorkers brush aside the gripes about police surveillance of the Muslim community."
In addition to the violations of the fundamental and guaranteed rights of citizens to be free of intrusive government surveillance as they go about their normal everyday activity, there are other troubling issues that must be noted. First and foremost is the fear and suspicion generated by this behavior. As a result of this NYPD/CIA program, Arab and Muslim immigrants have become increasingly fearful of law enforcement. Trust has been broken. And trust between the community and the police is the key to any successful crime prevention strategy. Another by-product of this effort is the suspicion it has created about the community, reinforcing prejudice and negative perceptions. Some might say "if the police think that they are all a threat, they must be."
It must also be pointed out, especially after reviewing the "reports" what an enormous waste of resources this has all been. Not only has it alienated the community from the police, it has also expended countless hours of valuable labor to produce files and reports that are of no value. In fact, it can safely be said, that the net result of all this work has been of zero benefit to the effort to keep New York safe.
I have long argued that Arabs and Muslims were the weak link in America's civil liberty chain. When the rights of vulnerable minority groups are threatened, we recognize the need to demand a halt to abuse, because we have learned that when the rights of any group are compromised, the rights of all are at risk. It is worrisome that in the post-9/11 era the challenge to constitutional rights has all too often been met with silence -- because it was Arabs and Muslims who were the targets. What we have failed to recognize is that if the rights to assemble, to speak freely, to be secure from unwarranted search, to due process, and more are put at risk by the NYPD and CIA in New York, then these rights may ultimately be threatened for all Americans.
Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of "Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters" (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American-community.