Secret surveillance of New York's Arab and Muslim community was not only a waste of time but comprises the basic rights of Americans
Top-secret proof the NYPD has alienated US Muslims
When a senior White House national security official travelled to New York City recently to praise that city's police department, he stoked the embers of a controversy between the Obama administration and the Arab American and Muslim communities.
John Brennan, the administration's top counterterrorism adviser, said he had "full confidence that the New York Police Department is doing things consistent with the law". Coming amid debate over a controversial police department programme to place mosques and Muslim businesses under surveillance, Mr Brennan's comments were clearly unhelpful.
Since the Associated Press first published revelations of the NYPD-CIA surveillance collaboration last year, there has been some discussion of the degree to which the NYPD has made a mockery of the protections afforded by the Bill of Rights, and how this has broken trust with New York's Arab and Muslim communities.
What has not received sufficient attention, however, is just how intrusive and at times pointless and inconsequential much of this programme has been.
Some examples from the NYPD internal documents made public by the AP read more like reports prepared by the Syrian Mukhabarat (secret police). But what also comes through quite clearly is how downright silly much of the spying operation has been.
Among the most alarming observations are those found in the "Locations of Interest Reports" that were compiled on New York's Egyptian and Syrian communities. Produced by the NYPD's "Intelligence Division-Demographic Unit," the publications are stamped "SECRET" and have the following warning printed in bold red type on the cover:
"The information contained in this document is NYPD secret. No portion of this document can be copied or distributed without the exclusive permission of the police commissioner or deputy commissioner of intelligence."
While all this build-up makes the publications sound serious and important, an examination of their content tells a different story.
Both reports begin with an overview establishing that their purpose is to provide "the maximum ability to gauge the general sentiment ... and the greatest insight into the general activity of the community". The reports then proceed to "map" the areas of the city where the community in question lives and their "locations of interest" - these being defined as "locations individuals may frequent to search for ethnic companionship" or "hangouts ... for listening to neighbourhood gossip".
After pages of demographic charts on Arab Americans in general, and Egyptians in particular (taken verbatim from a section of the Arab American Institute website) the reports go on to print pages of photos of every "location of interest" frequented by not just Egyptians and Syrians, but Lebanese, Palestinians, Yemenis, Moroccans, Algerians and "Caucasians".
Included in the report on each of these locations is such revealing information as whether Al Jazeera is watched at the location; whether Halal food is served; whether underage "Caucasians" were seen smoking at the establishment; and conversations overheard.
These books are not the only NYPD documents released by the AP that are filled with disturbing observations. Among the other questionable NYPD reports is the Radicalisation in the West: The Homegrown Threat, a study by NYPD "senior intelligence analysts." In an effort to create a profile of Muslims who become radicalised, the analysts lay out phases in the process. One of these, "Pre-radicalisation", includes individuals who share the following characteristics: male, under 35, residents and citizens of western democracies, middle class, educated, recent converts, living "unremarkable" lives with "little, if any, criminal history".
What is so obviously troubling with this profile, which is supposed to guide the NYPD's work, is the fact that it includes almost all young Muslim males in the US. Helpful to law enforcement? Certainly not. Intimidating to Muslim Americans? Absolutely.
The fundamental questions that should be asked, not just by the Obama administration, but by all Americans, are: "Where do you draw the line that separates the rights of persons from the over-reach of law enforcement"; and "at what point does one conclude that the NYPD (with CIA collusion) has crossed the line and violated constitutionally protected freedoms?"
It is not clear to me how anyone could review the NYPD materials and conclude that the tactics of massive surveillance and ethnic and religious profiling employed have not crossed that line. What they have done is waste precious law enforcement resources. And as an exercise in heavy-handed police power, they have compromised the very security and basic rights of New York's large Arab immigrant communities.
All this should have been taken into consideration before the White House official lavished praise on the NYPD dismissing the concerns of the Arab and Muslim communities.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa