WSJ Sold On Ineffective And Potentially Unconstitutional Surveillance Of American Muslims

The Wall Street Journal is misleadingly defending a highly controversial and recently abandoned surveillance program that targeted innocent American Muslims.

Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city planned to dismantle the constitutionally-questionable “Demographics Unit” of the New York Police Department (NYPD), a secretive program that relied on blanket surveillance and racial profiling of Muslim American communities both within and without the city. The program's indiscriminate spying on innocent Muslims on the basis of ethnicity and religion raised red flags not only among civil liberties advocates, but also among counter-terrorism experts. As The New York Times explained, the FBI was so alarmed about this CIA-initiated program that “F.B.I. lawyers in New York determined years ago that agents could not receive documents from the Demographics Unit without violating federal rules.” The top FBI official in New Jersey, where the Demographics Unit conducted “surveillance of mosques and Islamic student organizations,” pointed out that this widespread “police surveillance had made Muslims more distrustful of law enforcement and made it harder to fight terrorism.”

Nevertheless, the WSJ editorial board was quick to defend these newly discontinued tactics.

In an April 17 editorial, the WSJ praised the former surveillance unit, calling the program “strikingly successful.” The editorial went on to lament de Blasio's decision to scrap the program as “a bow to political correctness.”

This is being hailed by the usual suspects as a triumph for civil liberties, but it's really a bow to political correctness that removes an important defense for a city that has stopped at least 16 terror plots since 9/11. It's also more fallout from a series of sensationalist Associated Press stories from 2011 that were riddled with distortions and have since been rebuked by a federal judge.


The result [of the surveillance program] was a strikingly successful effort, under former police commissioner Ray Kelly, to keep all New Yorkers safe. Part of that effort involved a small “Demographics Unit” (later renamed the “Zone Assessment Unit” ) to keep an eye on “hot spots” and “venues of radicalization,” including mosques, bookstores, barbershops and other public places. The point wasn't to spy on entire communities, which the unit -- with never more than 16 officers -- lacked the resources to do in any case. It was to keep an eye on places where terrorists would seek to blend in.


Also false is the claim that the unit was ineffective. “The Demographics Unit was critical in identifying the Islamic Books and Tapes bookstore in Brooklyn as a venue for radicalization,” Mitchell Silber, a former NYPD director of intelligence analysis, noted in Commentary magazine. “Information the unit collected about the store provided a predicate for an investigation that thwarted a 2004 plot against the Herald Square subway station.”

This is not the first time the WSJ's editorial pages have praised this surveillance program. Last year, Fox News contributor Judith Miller also baselessly argued that the program could have prevented the Boston Marathon bombing and was “a model of how to stop killers like the Tsarnaev brothers before they strike.” Like the WSJ editorial board, Miller largely ignored the fact that the program was at the center of numerous legal challenges, including claims that it violated the due process, equal protection, and religious rights of American Muslims whose businesses, mosques, and non-profits had become targets of surveillance.

Furthermore, the WSJ's bold claims that the surveillance program was successful and effective are simply not borne out by the facts.

As a series of Pulitzer-prize winning reports from the Associated Press revealed, the NYPD's own internal documents showed that the department engaged in surveillance based almost solely on ethnic and religious identifiers and not much else. Not only does such a broad surveillance program raise serious constitutional concerns, the AP confirmed it wasn't particularly successful, either. In fact, “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.”

This ineffectiveness was admitted under oath by the then-commanding officer of the NYPD's Intelligence Division, Thomas Galati.

But the WSJ, who unlike the AP has not won a Pulitzer since Rupert Murdoch took over the paper in 2007, instead relied on the self-interested claims of Mitchell Silber, former senior analyst for the department and responsible for "overseeing all the city's terrorism investigations" -- the very investigations alleged to be unconstitutional in multiple federal lawsuits. As proof of the program's efficacy, the WSJ cited Silber's assertion that the Demographics Unit unearthed a “predicate for an investigation” that eventually led to a conviction in the 2004 Herald Square bombing plot.

But as the AP noted, Assistant Chief Galati “testified that he could find no evidence of” the tip Silber referenced.

To bolster its argument that the type of widespread surveillance the NYPD was participating in “might seem like ordinary prudence,” the editorial points to the fact that a federal judge recently dismissed a lawsuit brought by Muslim groups that alleged the surveillance had unfairly stigmatized them. According to the plaintiffs' lawyers, the NYPD acted “without any suspicion of criminal activity,” “engaged in pretextual conversations to elicit even the most mundane details about” Muslims, and used “the racial and ethnic background of Muslim Americans ... as a proxy to identify and target adherents of the Muslim faith.”

The WSJ relies on this case as proof that the NYPD has “never been charged” with violating a decades-old court order in place from the last time the department engaged in unconstitutional mass surveillance. But it fails to mention that this case was dismissed due to a lack of standing on the part of the plaintiffs, and not on the merits. In other words, the judge did not rule one way or the other regarding the likely unconstitutionality of the NYPD's surveillance program or its overall effectiveness. More importantly, the case has not yet been resolved -- the plaintiffs filed notice to appeal the ruling on March 21.

If the WSJ is really serious about preventing future acts of terrorism, it may want to consider supporting a program that actually works without trampling the constitutional rights of American citizens.

Photo via Flickr/Dirk Knight under a Creative Commons License.