This report was originally published on February 28, 2012, by the independent campus blog NYU Local. It was written just after NYPD surveillance of Muslim NYU students was reported by the AP. Sadly still relevant, we have republished this post in conjunction with the Nation's Islamophobia special issue.
The recent AP report disclosing that the NYPD’s counter-terrorism scheme includes Muslim Students Associations in colleges across New York City and the Northeast has prompted indignant backlashes from a slew of Muslim communities and civil liberty unions alike. The AP report was the first to reveal that the Muslim Community at NYU has also come under NYPD’s surveillance.
Ahmad Raza, a Stern senior and the president of Islamic Students Association (ISA) at NYU, expressed “disappointment” at the fact that the covert monitoring scheme was happening on our own campus. “Reports had surfaced mentioning some of the other schools involved and that surprised me, but even though I had my suspicions, I chose not to believe that they were doing this on our campus,” he said.
“A lot of people are concerned about whether to feel safe, not knowing who will be around us, or if what we had said [during ISA meetings] could be twisted in any way,” Iqbal said.
One of the NYPD’s classified cyber intelligence reports from November 2006 revealed that officers were trawling Muslim students’ websites as part of their “daily routine” as far back as six years ago. Included in the scheme was indeed the activities of the Muslim Community at NYU and many other universities across the city. A section of the report titled “Muslims Students Association/ Islamic Center of New York University,” details the speakers, attendees and promoters of events held by the Muslim community at NYU some years ago.
To numerous press inquiries, NYPD chief spokesman Paul Browne has answered with the boilerplate defense of the surveillance, which cites 12 individuals—former-members of Muslim associations at college level—arrested or convicted on terrorism charges in the United States.
In legal terms, the 'Federal Handshu accord' allows NYPD to “conduct online search activity and to access online sites and forums on the same terms and conditions as members of the public generally,” Browne wrote to WSN in an email. And in an email to the AP, Browne said that such surveillance operations were only conducted between 2006 and 2007.
Can Deputy Commissioner Browne Be Trusted?
However on several different occasions, Browne has proven himself to be either unable or unwilling to provide an unvarnished portrayal of NYPD’s surveillance and covert intelligence operations. In August last year, asked by an AP reporter about the Demographics Unit—a team of undercover officers in charge of mapping and monitoring ethnic neighborhoods—Browne denied its existence, only to be debunked later by an AP report on police documents which laid bare the specifications of the Demographics Unit.
Last month, Browne’s trustworthiness was compromised once again, when he asserted that “The Third Jihad”—a highly controversial training video—was “a wacky movie” that was shown “a couple of times” by mistake, and that Commissioner Kelly’s appearance as an interviewee had been transposed in from another source. Our own Brennan Center and NYT, through the Freedom of Information Law request, uncovered that this video had been shown to over a thousand officers in a continuous loop at least for a year, and that Browne himself recommended Commissioner Kelly to make an appearance as an interviewee in the film. Read more about that here.
Indeed, Mr. Browne’s words are not to be taken as gospel in regards to the issue of the Handshu accord.
Established in 1985, this Handshu agreement used to restrict NYPD’s free reign to monitor political groups, stipulating that clear evidence of criminal activity was required before the Department could investigate a political activity. Decades of undercover NYPD infiltrations into activist groups like the NYC chapter of Black Panthers, however, effectively rendered the agreement moot. The accord was relaxed in response to NYPD’s lobbying in the aftermath of September 11, spearheaded by former-CIA officer David Cohen to revamp NYPD’s counter-terrorism efforts.
Talking In The Mosque
Startling details of names and comments of over a dozen Muslims conversing inside mosques and Islamic centers in NYC are included in an NYPD intelligence unit report acquired by the AP. The topic of conversation appeared to be the provocative cartoon images of Prophet Muhammed published by a Danish periodical in September 2005. “The comments that were recorded appear to fall well within the individuals' constitutional rights to free speech," the Guardian remarked of the report. "Again and again the individuals denounce violence and call for peaceful responses.”
Civil Rights attorney Jethro Eisentstein—who is involved in a class action lawsuit against the NYPD in regards to the Handshu accord—told the Guardian the accord presently permits the NYPD to "attend public meetings on the same terms of the public, generally… But they could not maintain records of what they learned at such meetings unless it related to terrorism or criminal activity.” This restriction "is a rule enforceable in court,” he said, condemning the NYPD's report as a "clear violation” of the Handshu accord.
While it appears that NYPD’s monitoring of Muslim students’ online activities was conducted in accordance with the Handshu agreement, AP's report on NYPD's transgressing surveillance of other segments of the Muslim community suggests otherwise. Which begs the question as to whether monitoring online activities was the furthest NYPD went as far as Muslim student organizations are concerned.
Government Response in New York and New Jersey
The revelation of NYPD’s surreptitious surveillance of Muslim-owned businesses and mosques in Newark has prompted New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker to say that placing a community under covert surveillance on basis of religion “clearly crosses the line,” although such vigilance may have been justified in protecting citizens from crime and terrorism.
On the other hand, Mayor Bloomberg has vehemently defended the NYPD scheme. “We have not forgotten the lesson of that terrible day on 9/11 and we are not going to forget that,” he said, deeming the surveillance “legal,” “appropriate,” and “constitutional.” The contentious standing of the Handshu Federal Accord, however, means that several elements of the NYPD monitoring scheme is widely open to serious contention on the basis of their legality, appropriateness, and constitutionality.
Indignation at NYU
“I’m an American before I’m a Pakistani. I felt that I had to prove [my identity as an American] just because of my faith. That’s just against the values this nation was built upon,” he said.
Asked if the disclosure of NYPD’s surveillance tactics has in any way altered his daily routine, he said, “It’s made the community more aware. But we [ISA] don’t have anything to hide. We’re just regular American college students. The only difference might be that we pray five times a day, which the NYPD might also have been counting.”
Raza felt the scheme ought to prompt significant response from the student community on the basis of civil rights. There is a pattern in history of slowly eroding the civil liberties of a minority group until people stand up and say "no more". As a student body, we cannot be passive," he said
At NYU, the Muslim Community has held several discussions and rallied the NYU community at large via mass email to send letters of concern at the current state of affairs to the University administration. This has directly prompted President John Sexton to send a letter to Commissioner Ray Kelly:
Dear Commissioner Kelly:
We all appreciate the grave responsibility that the Police Department has taken upon itself to safeguard New Yorkers from terrorist attacks. All of us who lived through the events of 9/11 here in New York understand what is at stake for our city. However, if our understanding of the newly revealed information is correct – that the Police Department has been monitoring our Muslim student group based on religion alone – then we find this troubling and problematic.
Universities fill a special and especially valuable role in our society. Our commitment to the free and peaceful exchange of ideas is at the heart of our effectiveness as institutions of research and of teaching and learning. This is true even of genuinely controversial ideas, let alone the kind of uncontroversial activities involved here.
Parents and students now wonder whether continued participation in the University’s Islamic community of worship is a risk; whether an opinion expressed at a student group meeting will end up in a government report; whether testing an argument or challenging conventional wisdom will cause one to become a suspect of some sort. These possibilities are disquieting to our students and their families, harmful to our community-building efforts, and antithetical to the values we as a university cherish most highly.
You are a public servant of good will and character facing difficult and complex challenges in keeping New York safe from terrorism, and we at NYU appreciate your hard work. Still, I must report our community's alarm over the reports of this activity, and that we stand in fellowship with our Muslim students in expressing our community’s dismay.
Raza was enthusiastic about Sexton’s decision to send this letter of disapproval, characterising it as “a great first step.” He also lauded Sexton’s “measured approach” in such times of polarized controversy.
"His measured approach to this is exactly what's needed considering some of the stuff coming from both sides. We do expect him to keep the issue on his agenda and continue a dialogue with city officials going forward,” he said.
On the other hand, Sundus Arain, a CAS sophomore, characterized Sexton’s letter as rather lackluster. “I’d really like for him to send out… a public statement, not just a letter to commissioner Kelly… I’d like for them to send out a statement saying this is wrong because nowhere in this letter does he say this is wrong, this is unconstitutional,” Arain told WSN.
Mr. Sexton’s response so far has been remarkably tame, at least in comparison to that of Yale President Richard Levin, who immediately sent out a university-wide message which read, “I am writing to state, in the strongest possible terms, that police surveillance based on religion, nationality, or peacefully expressed political opinions is antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community, and the United States,” he said.
At Columbia, President Lee Bollinger’s initial response, the attitude of which could be placed in similar vein to that of Mr. Sexton, came under heavy criticism from the Muslim Community at Columbia. This has prompted Bollinger to release another public statement and to hold a “fireside chat” with a “limited number of students.”
Asked if any formal investigations at NYU by administration were pending, NYU spokesman John Beckman said that while the University did not have “the capacity” to undertake an investigation, the administration believed "the correct course is to convey the concerns of our University community and indicate our support for our Muslim students, which we have done in a direct written communication from the University's President to the Police Commissioner.”
Photographs of members of the Muslim community at NYU by NYU Local's Nadia Hassan