Since 9/11, the Department of Justice has prosecuted more than 500 terrorism cases, yet there remains scant public understanding of what these federal cases have actually looked like and the impact they have had on communities and families. Published by The Nation in collaboration with Educators for Civil Liberties, the America After 9/11 series features contributions from scholars, researchers and advocates to provide a systematic look at the patterns of civil rights abuses in the United States’ domestic “war on terror.”
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The New York City Police Department has sought to place an informant on the board of a prominent Arab-American organization. It has sent undercover officers into Muslim students’ organizations. It created a unit—formerly dubbed the “Demographics Unit”—that deploys officers into coffee shops to pretend to be patrons, order their favorite dishes and listen in on coffee-house banter. It has placed video cameras outside mosques to monitor congregants. It has even designated entire mosques as “terrorism enterprises” in an attempt to give itself legal cover to conduct multi-year investigations into mosques’ religious leaders, congregants and basic daily activities. Since 2001, the NYPD has mapped Muslim communities and their religious, educational and social institutions and businesses in New York City and beyond. It has riddled communities with undercover officers and informants. And it has done so unapologetically.
Contrary to popular perception, however, the NYPD has not gone rogue.
In fact, the NYPD is following in the footsteps of its federal counterparts at the FBI. Both agencies claim their intelligence gathering activities are governed by rules; the difference is that while the NYPD faces some skepticism with regards to the validity—or relevance—of its justifications, the FBI’s own surveillance policies have been accorded far more deference.
As an attorney working with New York’s Muslim communities at the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project at CUNY School of Law, along with student attorneys and colleagues, I have engaged in various efforts to hold the NYPD accountable for its surveillance and tactics. Along with the ACLU and the NYCLU, we represent Muslim individuals and organizations bringing a legal challenge to the NYPD’s surveillance program. But CLEAR clients’ experiences also show us that the NYPD’s tactics are not exceptional. Aggressively intrusive and harmful intelligence gathering on Muslims’ daily lives is a national epidemic—and the chief culprit is the FBI.
The task of holding the NYPD accountable must not supersede the equally, if not more important, task of holding the FBI—and the broader law enforcement community—to account for their own misguided post-9/11 policies.