WSJ Op-Ed Pushes Controversial NYPD Surveillance Of American Muslims

Judy MillerFox News contributor Judith Miller wrote a highly speculative Wall Street Journal op-ed that claimed New York City police surveillance practices “may well have... prevented” the Boston bombing, ignoring that the constitutionality of these programs is currently being challenged in court and their efficacy is questioned.

In the April 24 op-ed, Miller lauded the New York Police Department (NYPD) for its blanket surveillance of American Muslim communities, which has extended beyond the jurisdiction of New York City. According to Miller, this extensive spying program “is a model of how to identify and stop killers like the Tsarnaev brothers before they strike” and should be emulated by other cities. From the WSJ:

[T]he city has developed a counterterror program that is a model of how to identify and stop killers like the Tsarnaev brothers before they strike. The 1,000 cops and analysts who work in the NYPD's intelligence and counterterrorism divisions, for instance, would likely have flagged Tamerlan Tsarnaev for surveillance, given Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's insistence on aggressively monitoring groups and individuals suspected of radicalization.


The NYPD maintains close ties to Muslim preachers and community leaders, as well as a network of tipsters and undercover operatives.

Once the department had Tamerlan under surveillance, the NYPD's cyberunit might have detected his suspicious online viewing choices and social-media postings. Other detectives might have picked up his purchase of a weapon, gunpowder and even a pressure cooker--an item featured in an article, “How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” in the online al Qaeda magazine Inspire.

Even if the NYPD hadn't been watching Tamerlan, it might have been tipped off to such suspicious purchases thanks to its Nexus program. Since the program's launch in 2002, the department has visited more than 40,000 businesses in the metropolitan area, encouraging business owners and managers to report suspicious purchases or other activities potentially related to terrorism.

These surveillance programs - like other aspects of NYPD's aggressive policing - are currently being challenged in court. But Miller ignored claims that the spying unconstitutionally profiles American Muslims, interferes with freedom of religion rights under the First Amendment, and violates a court order that attempts to ensure surveillance focuses on illegal activity.

Furthermore, although she mentions it won a Pulitzer Prize, Miller completely ignores the substance of an Associated Press series critical of these programs. The AP's award-winning reporting on the NYPD's surveillance unearthed multiple details that undermine Miller's narrative. For example:

  • The “network of tipsters and undercover operatives” described by Miller were explained by AP to be paid informants for the NYPD that "'bait' Muslims into saying inflammatory things" and “trawl the mosques -- known informally as 'mosque crawlers' -- [to] tell police what the imam says at sermons and provide police lists of attendees, even when there's no evidence they committed a crime.”
  • The op-ed's description of the NYPD's search for “warning signs among New York's Muslim population” was reported by AP to be racial profiling that “put American citizens under surveillance and scrutinized where they ate, prayed and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity.”
  • The NYPD's monitoring of mosques through “close ties to Muslim preachers and community leaders” - as described by Miller - was reported in the AP series as “targeting mosques and their congregations with tactics normally reserved for criminal organizations,” resulting in situations where “the same mosques that city leaders visited to hail their strong alliances with the Muslim community have also been placed under NYPD surveillance -- in some cases infiltrated by undercover police officers and informants.”
  • Miller's detail that the NYPD visited “more than 40,000 businesses in the metropolitan area, encouraging business owners and managers to report suspicious purchases or other activities potentially related to terrorism” was described by AP as part of an aborted collaboration with the CIA that entailed “surveillance of entire neighborhoods” and “intelligence databases” of “Muslims not suspected of any wrongdoing.”
  • Miller's assurance that “court-ordered guidelines” controlled the NYPD's “plainclothes officers [covertly sent] to mosques, restaurants and other public venues where Muslims congregate” was a reference to a revised 1985 settlement over previous illegal spying, which the AP reported is the core of ongoing litigation over its potential violation due to “intrusive methods to conduct investigations into organizations and individuals associated with Islam and the Muslim community in New York even though there were no signs of unlawful activity.”

This AP coverage led to lawsuits filed over the programs' constitutionality and public grievances by state and federal officials worried about the unsupervised reach and nature of these NYPD surveillance efforts.

Yet this is arguably a separate issue from whether the programs actually work to prevent terrorist attacks, which Miller highlights as worthy of a “fresh look” across the country. That is, some say the potential illegality of this widespread and indiscriminate surveillance of American Muslims is irrelevant if its utility is worth breaking from American tradition and law. But according to AP's reporting, this too is questionable, as the core of the surveillance program “never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation.” From the AP:

In more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques, the New York Police Department's secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation, the department acknowledged in court testimony unsealed late Monday.

The Demographics Unit is at the heart of a police spying program, built with help from the CIA, which assembled databases on where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed. Police infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques, monitored sermons and catalogued every Muslim in New York who adopted new, Americanized surnames.

Police hoped the Demographics Unit would serve as an early warning system for terrorism. And if police ever got a tip about, say, an Afghan terrorist in the city, they'd know where he was likely to rent a room, buy groceries and watch sports.

But in a June 28 deposition as part of a longstanding federal civil rights case, Assistant Chief Thomas Galati said none of the conversations the officers overheard ever led to a case.