Is the NYPD Worse Than the NSA?

New details about innocent Americans targeted for surveillance by undercover officers.
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Reuters

The surveillance debate triggered by Edward Snowden's leaks frequently features government spokespeople assuring Americans that the authorities aren't targeting us with their spying activities. Implicit is the notion that if Americans were being targeted, that would be an abuse of power. 

In New York City, the debate is different, because there's no doubt about the NYPD's surveillance tactics: They're definitely targeting innocent Americans citizens and legal residents. And that's an ongoing abuse of power, even if comparatively fewer people have heard about it.

We've known for some time that innocent Muslim Americans were ethnically profiled by undercover NYPD officers, causing significant, under-acknowledged hardship in affected communities. Earlier this summer, Charlie Savage reported on four CIA officers embedded within the NYPD, despite the strict rules governing the spy agency's behavior within the United States. And today, New York has published "The NYPD Division of UnAmerican Activities," in which Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman unearth even more alarming details about the NYPD Demographics Unit.

  • Official secrecy defined the program from the start. "Documents related to this new unit were stamped NYPD SECRET. Even the City Council, Congress, and the White House -- the people paying the bills -- weren't told about it."
  • This is straight-up profiling. "They mapped, looking for 28 'ancestries of interest.' Nearly all were Muslim. There were Middle Eastern and South Asian countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Syria, and Egypt. Former Soviet states like Uzbekistan and Chechnya were included because of their large Muslim populations. The last 'ancestry' on the list was 'American Black Muslim.'"
  • Files on New Yorkers were started on the flimsiest of pretexts. "One Muslim man made it into files even though he praised President Bush's State of the Union address and said people who criticized the U.S. government didn't realize how good they had it. Two men of Pakistani ancestry were included for saying the nation's policies had become increasingly anti-Muslim since 9/11. Muslims who criticized the CIA's use of drones to launch missiles in Pakistan were documented."
  • Inevitably, spying was used for purposes other than counterterrorism. "Surveillance turned out to be habit-forming .... Undercover officers traveled the country, keeping tabs on liberal protest groups like Time's Up and the Friends of Brad Will. Police infiltrated demonstrations and collected information about antiwar groups and those that marched against police brutality. Detectives monitored activist websites and copied the contents into police files, including one memo in 2008 for Kelly that reported the contents of a website about a group of women organizing a boycott to protest the police shooting of Sean Bell, an unarmed black man killed the morning before his wedding.

The full story contains a lot more objectionable behavior, and after reading how the undercover officers operate it's easy to understand why the unit would cause Muslim-American mosque attendees, small-business owners and patrons, and students throughout the city to grow paranoid in their daily lives. And defenders of the program are unable to point to even a single case where it prevented a terrorist attack -- in fact, they can't even point to a terrorism-related arrest or prosecution. 

Usually, when I write phrases like, "This is how a secret police force with files on innocent Americans starts," I'm issuing a warning about the future. But the NYPD literally started a secret police unit that began indiscriminately keeping files on innocent Americans. This isn't a warning about a slippery slope. It is an observation about ongoing abuse of civil liberties in America's biggest city.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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