Not One Lead from NYPD Spying on Muslims

Further Evidence Against Effectiveness of Controversial Counterterrorism Policies

Six years of spying on Muslims by the New York Police Department resulted in not one lead or terrorism investigation, underscoring complaints that religious profiling and massive surveillance after 9/11 were counterproductive anti-terrorism tactics.

Assistant Police Chief Thomas Galati, the commanding officer of the Intelligence Division, made the admission in court testimony last month. “I could tell you that I have never made a lead from rhetoric that came from a Demographics report and I’m here since 2006,” referring to the secret “Demographics Unit” that directed surveillance of Muslim communities.

Galati’s acknowledgement is consistent with the Breakthrough Institute’s 2011 report “Counterterrorism Since 9/11,” which found no credible evidence that any of the controversial measures – including ‘enhanced’ interrogation, preventative detention, expanded use of secret surveillance without warrants, ethnic/religious profiling, the collection and mining of domestic data, and the prosecution of terror suspects in military tribunals – have been effective.

After 9/11, the NYPD created a vast counterterrorism operation eventually staffed with 1,000-officers, which spied on Muslims in the city and also across the Northeast, including at colleges and universities such as Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, and to an extensive extent across the Hudson in Newark, New Jersey, according to the Pulitzer Prize-winning AP investigation. Police collected information about where Muslims live, shop for groceries, drink coffee, pray, and gather, without evidence of criminal activity.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor, John O. Brennan, have defended NYPD tactics as necessary, effective, and appropriate.

But the post-9/11 expansion of surveillance, Breakthrough found, in many cases compounds the challenges faced by security and intelligence agencies by “increasing the amount of informational ‘noise’ they must filter out to detect terrorist ‘signals.’”

For example, the Government Accountability Office found no evidence that post-9/11 efforts by the FBI to screen tens of thousands of American citizens identified as Muslim and/or Arab – through what was known as the “Interview Project” – were effective in producing leads. Over half the FBI agents interviewed by the GAO questioned the value of the information being gathered. Similarly, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement “Special Registration” process imposed on male immigrants from Muslim majority countries, which photographed, fingerprinted, and interviewed more than 80,000 men in 2002 and 2003, didn’t catch any terrorists either.

Moreover, racial and religious profiling alienates people who might produce information useful to law enforcement. The focus on Arabs and Muslims, some critics argue, distracts from other homegrown terrorist threats, such as those from white, non-Muslim extremists like Wade Michael Page, an Army veteran and apparent white supremacist who killed six people when he opened fire at a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin, last month.

The reality is that there are simply too few terrorists to generate a useful profile based on religion, ethnicity, national origin, or language.

Instead of closely tracking credible terrorist threats, the NYPD engaged in widespread surveillance, declaring entire communities – even those beyond its jurisdictional boundaries – suspicious simply because of religious, linguistic, or national characteristics. Such “intelligence” operations are not only questionable on civil rights or ethical grounds, they are also ineffective and inefficient, producing far too much irrelevant information and too little of value, all while taking huge amounts of resources from other priorities.

Galati gave testimony in relation to a civil rights lawsuit known as the Handschu case, which found that NYPD spying on political activists during the 1950s and 1960s violated free speech rights. The court imposed federal guidelines that allow the department to gather information about political speech only if it is related to potential terrorism. Civil rights lawyers now believe that the NYPD’s post-9/11 practices have breached those guidelines.

But whether or not the civil rights lawyers win their case, the NYPD would be wise to abide by the guidelines anyway to better achieve their own aims. NYPD intelligence operations would be far more effective and efficient if they dropped widespread profiling and surveillance practices altogether.

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