According to newly exposed documents, the New York City Police Department designated all mosques in the city as terrorist organizations, allowing the department to spy on them without oversight and to plant operatives inside the Muslim houses of worship. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that, under the secret designation, not only do police need no specific allegations of wrongdoing to surveil mosques, but anyone who attends a worship service can automatically come under surveillance themselves and become a subject of investigation.
The secret police files also revealed plans by the department to install informants on the boards of local Islamic charities, including the Brooklyn-based immigrant advocacy group the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY). Linda Sarsour of the AAANY spoke to Raw Story about the deep feeling of betrayal that comes from finding out one is subject to surveillance by officials you have treated as allies.
"This is CoIntelPro 2.0," she said, referring to the notorious covert operation by the FBI in which, from 1956 to 1971, the bureau planted operatives in peace groups, activist organizations and other political groups with the aim of disrupting and discrediting them from within.
NYPD lawyers created an extralegal tool after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 called a "terrorism enterprise investigation," or TEI, a set of procedures for dealing with suspected terror groups that enabled police to go outside the law and spy on subjects without any evidence of wrongdoing. TEIs rolled back restrictions placed on law enforcement organizations in the 1970s that prevented unwarranted spying and protected groups' constitutional freedoms.
Under TEIs, more than a dozen of which have been launched against New York mosques since 2003, the sermons of Muslim clerics are considered exempt from First Amendment protections and no judge's authorization is need to plant recording devices or cameras. These revelations come just as the NYPD is taking heat for racially profiling African-American men under the city's "stop and frisk" policy. A federal judge ruled earlier this month that the policy violates Fourth Amendment protections against illegal searches and seizures.
Sarsour said that her organization, along with many Islamic groups in New York City, went to great lengths to be an ally of NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and the police force, she said, trying to foster a relationship of trust and openness.
"We were inviting this guy to our mosques and making lavish dinners," she said, "spending resources and inviting him to all these different Islamic institutions across the city. We were trying to be partners."
Now, she said, she's not sure who to trust. Her organization's function in the community, she said, is largely secular. AAANY teaches newly arrived immigrants how to speak English and offers after-school programs to children of working families. And yet, she is certain she has seen the NYPD's newly revealed "spy taxi" in the neighborhood around her organization's headquarters in Brooklyn and the neighboring Bay Ridge mosque. The decommissioned yellow cab is a surveillance unit with a fixed camera and recording devices that the department has left to record activity in heavily Muslim areas.
"A couple of months ago, I was telling my colleague," she said, "I said, 'Why does that cab stay parked sometimes for two days?' In New York, you have to do alternate side parking so that the sanitation department can clean. Sometimes that cab stayed there and didn't get a ticket and it didn't get towed. I always had a suspicion about it," but her colleagues, she said, dismissed the idea, only to have her suspicions confirmed on Tuesday.
"Our community is terrified," she explained. The documents revealed by the AP confirm the suspicions that Muslim-Americans have had for years in New York City about being surveilled and spied upon. Because of heavy police presence near mosques and prominently placed security cameras that film every person who leaves and enters a mosque, "congregants don't come to the mosques anymore because they know there are spies there. Mosques have lost donations."
Even her own children, ages 9 to 14, when they found an old pager in box at home, thought it was a police bug. "They never saw a beeper before," she said. "My kids, swear to God, thought it was an NYPD listening device. I said, 'No, it's a beeper,' and my kids said, 'What's that?' I tried to explain to them how it works and how I used it, and I asked them, 'Why do you think this is a listening device?' And then they look at me like I'm crazy. 'What do you mean, why do we think that? Mom, we already know the NYPD spies on us.'"
Commissioner Kelly flatly denied that the documents are accurate. On Wednesday morning's edition of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," he said, "Our sin is to have the temerity to go into counterterrorism and trying to protect this city by supplementing what the federal government has done. We put these programs in three and a half months after 9/11. Three and a half months after 2,800 people died on this island, about three miles away."
Kelly sidestepped the question as to whether the department has categorized mosques as terror organizations, saying, "We follow leads wherever they take us. We're not intimidated as to where that lead takes us. And we're doing that to protect the people of New York City."
The revelations about the department's spying program have been released as part of the advance press for Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD's Secret Spying Unit and bin Laden's Final Plot Against America, a book by AP reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman. The authors say that the book is based on thousands of previously unpublished documents and files as well as interviews with officials from the CIA, FBI and NYPD.
Activists and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the NYPD in June, alleging that the department's policy of surveilling Muslims is unconstitutional. The suit alleges that the policy is discriminatory and a violation of Islamic citizens' First Amendment freedoms.
[image of NYPD surveillance tower at entrance of so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" via Christopher Penler / Shutterstock.com]