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The Long Life of Profiling, Ten Years After 9/11 | The Nation

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Moustafa Bayoumi

Moustafa Bayoumi

Guest blogging until September 11, 2011.

The Long Life of Profiling, Ten Years After 9/11

The Associated Press has been doing some good investigative reporting lately. On August 24, the AP broke the news that the CIA and the NYPD are combining forces to spy on Muslims in New York City. Since the CIA is prohibited by law to collect intelligence on American citizens, this is more than newsworthy. It’s probably unconstitutional, which explains why the NYPD has, according to the report, kept these activities secret.

This is no ordinary program, nor does it seem to be merely about sharing expertise.

According to the report, the NYPD dispatches “rakers,” the NYPD term, into a “human mapping program” to monitor the daily lives of Muslim Americans in the places where ordinary living transpires, such as bookstores, cafés, bars and nightclubs, without the hint of criminal wrongdoing. The police department also employs “mosque crawlers,” who scrutinize imams and their sermons, and have gathered intelligence on cab drivers and food cart vendors, jobs commonly associated with Muslim workers.

(There is of course a sordid history to all of this. Throughout the 1960s, about one million intelligence files were compiled on people and political groups by the NYPD through the use of “informants, wiretaps, agents provocateurs and undercover officers posing as activists, lawyers and journalists,” according to the New York Times. A federal lawsuit launched in 1971 eventually led to the Handshu Guidelines in 1985, which sought to preserve the First Amendment protections of civilians posing no threat of a crime from police surveillance. But the guidelines were weakened basically beyond recognition after 9/11.)

In the current program, the CIA sent one of its agents, Larry Sanchez, to the NYPD, and the NYPD also sent an officer to train at its school. According to the AP report, Sanchez and the head of the NYPD’s intelligence unit, another former CIA man, David Cohen, devised a strategy to stop cars in Pakistani neighborhoods for “speeding, broken tail lights, running stop signs, whatever.” Then they could look for suspicious behavior or outstanding warrants, and if an arrest was involved, leverage the arrest to turn the person into an informant. “It’s not a question of profiling,” one official is quoted as saying in the report. “It’s a question of going where the problem could arise.”

But if that’s not profiling, then what is profiling?

There’s more. A few days ago, the AP published another report providing further details on the NYPD’s activities. Inside the NYPD is the “Demographics Unit,” which keeps an “ancestries of interest” list. On it are twenty-eight countries (nearly all Muslim) and the line item “American Black Muslim.” From the information gleamed by the Demographic Unit, rakers have been sent “to local businesses, chatting up store owners to determine their ethnicity and gauge their sentiment” the AP reported. They also “played cricket and eavesdropped in the city's ethnic cafes and clubs.”

Taking an interest in cricket is already suspicious enough, as far as I’m concerned. (I never understood the game, nor its allure, but that’s just me.) Add eavesdropping, mosque crawling, list-making of “ancestries of interest,” and more and it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that domestic spying is alive and well, the requisite denials by the NYPD or the CIA notwithstanding. To many in the New York’s Muslim community, the AP report confirms what they’ve long suspected, and reminds them of the surveillance regimes they’ve left behind to come here. A coalition of groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), has called for an investigation, and to her credit, Yvette Clarke, who represents much of Brooklyn, has spoken out about the program, stating that “Americans would be outraged if police infiltrated Baptist churches looking for evangelical Christian extremists.” CAIR-NY civil rights manager Cyrus McGoldrick summed it up this way: “Investigate crimes not communities.”

The AP reports are troubling, but what is surprising to me is the relative lack of interest in the story. You’d think then that this would have been front-page news. Instead, the reports seemed barely to raise an eyebrow among either a cynical or complacent public. The New York Times, as far as I can tell, hasn’t mentioned the story. The White House’s counterterrorism adviser and Mayor Bloomberg offered platitudes about the NYPD’s providing exceptional service. The day after the report appeared, the CIA issued a statement denying it was actually “spying” on Americans (“none of the support we have provided to NYPD can be rightly characterized as ‘domestic spying’ by the CIA”) but affirming that its “cooperation” with the NYPD “is exactly what the American people deserve and have to come to expect following 9/11.” This seems like odd way of putting it. Do Americans, including Muslim Americans, deserve to have their routine activities monitored by law enforcement?

Why isn’t the CIA in the NYPD bigger news? The way I see it, there are three possible answers to this question. (1) We have become so accustomed to outrages upon civil liberties that we have developed some kind of tragic civil-liberties-infraction immunity. (2) In the post-9/11 world, we expect our civil liberties to be traded for feelings of security (this seems to be the CIA’s answer). (3) We are perfectly willing to trade away someone else’s civil liberties for our own sense of security. (David Cole has brilliantly examined this position before.)

Ten years ago, there was near-universal acknowledgement that profiling was unethical and ineffective. In February 2001 President Bush said so in his State of the Union address and in 2003 issued guidelines prohibiting the practice (with, of course, a national security exception). Yet, the practice continues. In June, Wisconsin voted to repeal its anti–racial profiling law. The ACLU is currently fighting Alabama’s noxious anti-immigrant law Bill 56 on racial profiling grounds. New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy is again being challenged as racial profiling. And Muslim Americans continue to be profiled at work, in their houses of worship, where they eat and even when they play cricket.

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