Official rationale for NYPD spying falls apart with report that ‘no leads’ came from spying on Muslims

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The New York Police Department’s (NYPD) rationale for its widespread surveillance of innocent Muslims in the Northeast has been that it helps protect the city against terrorism. “Our primary goal is to keep this city safe and save lives and that’s what we’re doing,” police chief Ray Kelly said earlier this year in response to critics of the surveillance program.

But that explanation crumbled today with an Associated Press article that reports that after six years of eavesdropping on conversations and recording them and infiltrating mosques, the spying “never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation.” The admission, which came in court testimony from June that was just unsealed, was made by Thomas Galati, the head of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division.

Here’s more from the AP:

Galati testified as part of a lawsuit that began in 1971 over NYPD spying on students, civil rights groups and suspected Communist sympathizers during the 1950s and 1960s. The lawsuit, known as the Handschu case, resulted in federal guidelines that prohibit the NYPD from collecting information about political speech unless it is related to potential terrorism.

Civil rights lawyers believe the Demographics Unit violated those rules. Documents obtained by the AP show the unit conducted operations outside its jurisdiction, including in New Jersey. The FBI there said those operations damaged its partnerships with Muslims and jeopardized national security.

The AP also reports that the NYPD surveilled people just because of the language they spoke:

In one instance discussed in the testimony, plainclothes NYPD officers known as “rakers” overheard two Pakistani men complaining about airport security policies that they believed unfairly singled out Muslims. They bemoaned what they saw as the nation’s anti-Muslim sentiment since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Galati said police were allowed to collect that information because the men spoke Urdu, a fact that could help police find potential terrorists in the future.

“I’m seeing Urdu. I’m seeing them identify the individuals involved in that are Pakistani,” Galati explained. “I’m using that information for me to determine that this would be a kind of place that a terrorist would be comfortable in.”

Galati also says that the NYPD thinks that eavesdropping at a Lebanese cafe is useful because, if customers were from South Lebanon, “that may be an indicator of possibility that that is a sympathizer to Hezbollah because Southern Lebanon is dominated by Hezbollah.”

Just as disturbing is that Galati admitted that merely expressing opposition to US policy is reason enough for the NYPD to spy on Muslims and record speech in that vein. Blogger Marcy Wheeler does some digging through Galati’s testimony, and finds that Galati said:

Their job was, if they hear people talking about it, you know, they should inform us. If what they’re hearing is hostility towards the United States or to the general public at large, you know, as a result of these events, would something happen here as a result? Their job is to listen for that…

If we deployed them because of an event that took place in a particular part of the World, a drone attack, we would want to know and we would instruct them that people are upset about this drone attack. If they are, that’s something that would be important for us to know, that would be something we would want to know.

Jethro Eisenstein, a long-time lawyer who has litigated the Handschu Guidelines case for over 40 years, told the AP that “he will go back to court soon to ask that the Demographics Unit, [the unit that spied on Muslims], be shut down.”

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