The biggest mistake people make when talking about intelligence in this country (military intelligence, police intelligence, etc.) is assuming that it has anything to do with being intelligent. Intelligence is only as good as the questions you ask. Intelligence in a democracy is only as good as the questions that the public demands answers to. To take it one step further, the only way that the public will really ask the right questions is if the media, and others that are supposed to inform the public, stop taking turns asking so many stupid questions and start asking the right ones.
When we find out that the largest local police force in the country is massively spying on people within and outside its jurisdiction who have never been suspected or accused of wrongdoing, you would think that the media would ask the right questions. But once you replace the word "people" with "Muslims," it makes it okay for some media outlets not to do their job. The recent revelation by the Associated Press that New York City Police Department is spying on Muslims in several states at their places of worship, businesses, and even at student group functions on camping trips brought a lot of condemnation from some circles (like the Republican Governor of New Jersey) and a surprising (sort of) amount of support from media outlets like the New York Post and the Daily News. There was even a protest in support of the NYPD organized by a Muslim physician from Arizona who jumped on a plane to New York to organize a rally in a city he doesn't live in that brought out as many people as a Halal chicken and rice cart would during a slow lunch day. Both editorials from the New York Post and the Daily News implicitly make the same point as an 18 year old that attended the rally, "I have trust in the N.Y.P.D. for following people with reasonable belief."
Let me leave alone the fact that the NYPD doesn't seem to reasonably believe that the people they are spying on have done or will do anything wrong, a point each person supporting the spy program casually ignores. Even on my radio show, during a debate between the Council on American Islamic Relations' Cyrus McGoldrick and Americans Against Hate's (and candidate for Congress in South Florida) Joe Kaufman, Mr. Kaufman professes a "hope" that the program isn't just about targeting Muslims. To the credit of Mr. Kaufman and that 18-year-old from the rally, neither are journalists (although I do wish they would read the AP articles more thoroughly). But even the media outlets that condemn the program don't ask basic questions that would make it easier for regular folks to decide if the NYPD program is an insane breach of democratic principles or not.
It's really a simple set of questions: Is there any reason to mistrust the NYPD spying on somebody? Have they ever violated the public trust by spying on people for completely jacked-up reasons? Have they ever been accused of unlawfully spying on non-Muslims that were simply exercising their rights, let's say for example... other police officers?
There is a really simple answer to each one of those questions: Yes.
For decades the NYPD was legally prevented, under the Handschu agreement, from spying on people that were simply exercising their constitutional rights after being sued for using surveillance to suppress and put down completely lawful protest. Fine, you say, that was the '60s and '70s.
But shortly after 9/11, the NYPD was taken to court again for unlawfully spying on people, this time its "own people." You see, before Rudy Giuliani became "America's Mayor" for doing nothing more than showing basic human emotion on 9/11, around the same time he was using taxpayer dollars to provide NYPD detail for his mistress while blasting the morality of mothers on welfare, and shortly before he made millions from taking credit for things he didn't do, his popularity in New York plummeted after a rash of shootings of unarmed Black and Brown men by the NYPD under his watch.
What made the anti-police brutality rallies in New York during the late '90s and early 2000s different was that one of the groups at the forefront of the protests was an organization of Black cops calling themselves 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. The fact that Black police officers in the NYPD were calling for the same changes within the department that everyday New Yorkers were making on the street added a new layer of credibility to the persistent complaints of police misconduct. You would think that Mayor Giuliani and his Police Commissioner Howard Safir would appreciate the courage of Lt. Eric Adams, the head of the organization, and other officers in the organization. Instead, Adams and other cops in the organizations were allegedly subject to threats, intimidation, and surveillance.
At the time, Lt. Adams stated, almost prophetically, "New Yorkers must know that if the police department can do this to a law enforcement body, it can do it to any citizen." Despite being allegedly subject to intense surveillance by their own "brothers in blue," there was never any evidence that any members of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement had done anything other than speak out against police misconduct.
The fact that the NYPD admits to spying on its own officers who did nothing wrong, coupled with the fact that ex-NYPD officers admit that planting evidence on suspects was rampant, layered with the fact that five members of the NYPD were arrested in October for gun running, seems to be lost on the media and others that "hope" we should just "trust" the NYPD with running its own CIA.
It seems that outlets like the Daily News temporarily lost the ability to Google their own articles when praising the NYPD program. They definitely lost the ability to ask simple questions like, "Why would anyone blindly trust an agency that allegedly spied on its own officers for simply speaking out against police misconduct?" If the Post and the Daily News wanted to get even more creative they could ask if the NYPD is as vigilant about helping other jurisdictions solve their violent crimes as they are about spying in their backyards. After all, there is a serial killer loose in Long Island, that some speculate might just be an ex-cop.
This is not to say that all cops are bad, or that the NYPD is all bad. But as it takes on bigger law enforcement tactics that are bolder and badder (I know it's not a word) ideas, it makes it easier for even a few bad apples to do a lot more damage in the Big Apple and beyond.
If the NYPD wants to become a huge spy agency in order to stop terrorism, it should remember that the specific terrorism New York dealt with on 9/11 had at least a little to do with the bad decisions our spy agencies made in the '70s and '80s, giving guns to crazy people to kill Soviets without asking where those guns would point afterward.
In a democracy, you won't get an answer to questions you don't ask. For those of us that lived through 9/11, care about democracy, and care about really keeping people safe, it is time to ask questions... a lot of questions of people that just "hope" that we "trust" them.
Don't forget to tune into our show every Wednesday at 7 pm.