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Raking the Coals of Bigotry: How the NYPD's Surveillance Apparatus Targets Muslims

A new book details the story of how the Central Intelligence Agency worked with New York police to invade the private lives of Muslims.

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The unit also bungled the plan to arrest the Afghans in an episode that highlighted the FBI and NYPD’s tenuous relationship. When the FBI instructed the spy unit to find out everything they could on Zazi and his friends, police agents went to a Flushing imam who doubled as an informant. But the imam ended up tipping off Zazi’s father about the law enforcement pursuit of his son, throwing the FBI’s plans in disarray. They had to arrest Zazi earlier than they had planned to. The mess-up, which sparked heated arguments between the two agencies, was the culmination of years of clashes. The FBI thought the NYPD Intelligence Division was trouble: single-minded, thick-headed, constitutionally suspect and ineffective.

In contrast to the NYPD, the FBI comes out looking like a good, dogged intelligence agency in the book. Buried in the second half of the book, Goldman and Apuzzo sketch out the FBI’s own problems. But these issues should have been highlighted more given their magnitude: the reliance on informants who, lawyers have argued, entrap Muslims in terror plots and the agency's round-up of Muslims post-9/11, many of whom ended up deported over immigration violations.

Like the NYPD, the FBI has used its own power to pressure Muslims into becoming informants in exchange for help. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the FBI has told Muslim-Americans trapped abroad because of their inclusion on a no-fly list that they could get off easily — by spying on their own communities back home in the US. For all the oversight of the FBI — something the NYPD doesn’t have to contend with — parts of the federal agency still view Muslims as targets for spying rather than partners in the fight against terrorism. Far from an aberration in America's post-9/11 landscape, the NYPD is merely the most extreme example of a law enforcement apparatus running roughshod over the rights of Muslim Americans.

What's also missing from Apuzzo and Goldman’s otherwise excellent exposé of the NYPD is the larger political context in which the spying took place. The NYPD's logic is Islamophobic at its core: all Muslims are deemed potential terrorists until they're proven not to be, an inversion of how law enforcement is supposed to work. Yet there's little exploration of how Islamophobic discourse from the media and elected officials contribute to the implementation and acceptance of spying targeting Muslims.

In the same year that Apuzzo and Goldman began reporting on the NYPD's Intelligence Division, New York Republican Peter King set up House hearings to probe “radicalization” among Muslim-Americans — a transparent attempt to cast aspersions on one particular community. In 2010, anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller worked the national media into a frenzy over what was inaccurately labeled the “Ground Zero mosque.” King, Geller and other prominent figures who demonized Muslims directly after 9/11 opened up space for institutions with even more power, like the police, to move a discourse of bigotry into policies of bigotry. In an atmosphere where anti-Muslim sentiment largely went unchallenged, it's no surprise that hardly an eye was batted when the NYPD hired CIA officials to implement an intelligence collection program aimed at law-abiding citizens.

The book presents an undeniably damning portrait of the NYPD’s surveillance operation. Now, it’s up to the courts and lawmakers to decide whether these operations are legal or prudent. Three federal lawsuits are being pursued in reaction to Apuzzo's and Goldman's groundbreaking investigations. The next New York City mayor will have to grapple with the question of continuing or halting the spy operations. Judges and elected officials will have a documented record on which to look back to decide these weighty questions in the coming months:  Enemies Within.

 
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