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article imageOp-Ed: NYPD Spies On Ethnics - Is Liberty A Worthy Cost For Safety?

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By Anthony Organ     Aug 29, 2011 in World
New York - As allegations emerge that the New York Police Department has been spying on ethnic communities with the assistance of the Central Intelligence Agency, questions concerning violation of liberty and overstepping of jurisdiction arise.
A recent investigation undertaken and published by the Associated Press has alleged that during the ten years following the September 11 terrorist attacks the NYPD has "become one of the nation's most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies", targeting the communities of ethnic minorities "in ways that would run afoul of civil liberties rules if practiced by the federal government". AP claim the investigation is based on documents and interviews with more than forty current and former NYPD and federal officials, many of whom requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issues discussed. The CIA have declared the suggestions "simply wrong" and the NYPD have described them as "fictional", but the Justice Department has decided to review a request to investigate regardless.
If true, there are many who believe there to be nothing wrong with such methods. There have been several analogies made similar to the one used by John Cutter, a retired NYPD official, in the report: "It's like, after a shooting, do you go 20 blocks away and interview guys or do you go to the neighborhood where it happened?". Thus, since the terrorist attack was conducted by Muslims, it seems a logical move to begin to monitor the Islamic communities of New York. However, the main problem in this case is with the methods used to monitor these communities. Rather than co-operate with community leaders they chose to utilise their diverse background of police officers to select suitable candidates to infiltrate communities of the same background as them. They would blend into the communities, attending mosques, visiting coffee-shops and sitting in bookstores, observing the people around them for any indication of radical tendencies. However, it seems that valid leads were not always a prerequisite for gathering information on individuals. Following the 2006 trial of Shahawar Matin Siraj, who was convicted of planning an attack on the New York subway system, the key informant in the case, Osama Eldawoody, claimed that he attended hundreds of prayer services and collected information on people, including those who showed no signs of radicalisation. After three years of undercover work he finally found evidence of terrorism and managed to gather enough evidence to secure a conviction. However, following the trial he felt the need to move himself and his family to another state because he feared repercussions, and said "I don't think this would encourage anyone to help".
This is one of the key issues, in infiltrating rather than co-operating with ethnic communities there is a high risk to alienating and antagonising those who could prove the most valuable allies. In fact, the Council on American Islamic Relations has already stated that "The FBI's best line of defense against terrorism is the Muslim community. These actions have only made that relationship harder to sustain". It is in the interest of Muslim communities to prevent terrorism, if only for the way in which it reflects on their reputation. The September 11 attacks were not simply an attack on non-Muslims; over one per cent of those killed were Muslims, and whilst this may seem a small amount, American Muslims represent around one per cent of the total U.S. population so this is in proportion. In addition to this, the terrorist attacks made life significantly harder for immigrants all across the country but particularly in New York. Hate crimes against Muslims, and even those who simply looked like Muslims, increased dramatically in the wake of the attacks, including the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh who was killed because his turban made him look Muslim. American-Muslim organisations immediately condemned the attacks as "cowardly" and called on all Muslims to contribute their skills and resources to help. Most community leaders would thus share the wish of the NYPD to eradicate terrorism and so working alongside them to gather intelligence on possible dangerous individuals would have been an effective method which would also have maintained or even strengthened relations with these communities.
However, the AP allegations raise wider questions than those considered above. One of the most disturbing of these whether the CIA has been assisting the NYPD in spying on American citizens. The report claims that the blurring between foreign and domestic spying began when David Cohen, a retired 35-year veteran of the CIA, joined the NYPD in January 2002 to become the police department's first civilian intelligence chief. Shortly after this, Cohen asked CIA headquarters to send him someone to help who would have access to the latest information, allowing the NYPD not to have to rely on the FBI. They sent Larry Sanchez in March 2002, but according to three former officials he was kept on the CIA payroll, and one former official claimed that he had offices at both the NYPD and the CIA's New York station. Since the CIA is prohibited from involvement in domestic law enforcement, the allegation that they were directly paying someone working for the NYPD is very concerning. We must also question how widespread the potential for spying must be. Clearly the criteria for being spied on do not include lack of citizenship, since these communities consist of U.S. citizens. So then the the main criteria appear to be race and religion. Other ethnic groups, such as Latinos or Eastern-Europeans will surely start to wonder whether their communities will be infiltrated or whether they have already. In a country founded by immigration, if citizenship does not protect you from having your privacy invaded by the authorities then surely anyone could be a target. There are strict rules in place to prevent the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who do have the jurisdiction to investigate domestic affairs, from conducting investigations without proper leads, but if the AP report proves true then the NYPD appears to be immune from such rules. When there was a suggestion that the Los Angeles Police Department would begin similar tactics there was a huge uproar and they backed down, leading the NYPD to believe it to be okay simply as long as no-one knows about it.
The civilian population do not appear to be the only ones not to have known about these investigations however. There are several examples in the report of local police and the FBI being called to suspicious scenes only to find NYPD officers conducting investigations without their knowledge. They have operated in places such as New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, outside of their jurisdiction where they can't make arrests and could be liable if anything went wrong, but have felt it is worth the risk to be there. This complete lack of co-operation with other police forces wastes time and resources as local officers would not have to be called if they knew in advance that they were there. The report even claims that Cohen has sent officers abroad to station them in eleven foreign cities. If different states are outside of NYPD jurisdiction then surely different countries are as well. If there was more co-operation between departments , and if each one focused on the area it was supposed to then anti-terrorism operations would run far more smoothly and time and resources would doubtless be saved.
It appears that David Cohen's cause is noble: to protect New York, and America, from further acts of terrorism. However his methods risk making this more difficult to do. If he was willing to show more trust not only to ethnic communities but also to other law-enforcing departments, then he would surely find that with everyone co-operating together results would be easier to achieve. Either way, it is wrong to diminish the rights of an entire ethnic group because of the evil acts of a minority. When liberties begin to be forfeited for some it becomes easier to take them away from everyone. It is ironic that this has taken place in clear view of the Statue of Liberty. All Americans should remember the words of Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety".
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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