Would a Democratic Mayor End the NYPD’s Muslim-Surveillance Program?

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A new kind of neighborhood watch program. Photo: TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Most of the leading candidates to replace Michael Bloomberg are not particularly keen to talk about surveillance of Muslim New Yorkers by the NYPD, a program that includes labeling entire mosques as terrorist organizations and mapping where these residents work, socialize, and pray in the name of preventing another 9/11-style attack. (To date, these tactics haven't produced a conviction.) Within the Democratic field, all the major candidates have at least expressed discomfort with the sprawling intelligence regime, which was detailed by investigative reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman in their new book Enemies Within, excerpted recently in New York.

But a series of conversations with the Democratic candidates on the matter (the Republicans seem to agree that Muslim spying is a good thing) suggest that the front-runners are hedging their bets and carefully avoiding any disavowal of the overall framework of surveillance. No candidate, for instance, has yet stated any intention to ax the NYPD's deputy commission of intelligence, 35-year CIA veteran David Cohen, who created the program. Few believe that any major changes are coming as long as he remains at the helm. 

"I suspect with the next mayor, whoever he or she is, there will be an Obama dynamic on public safety in that the election will be over and people will realize they have profound decisions to make going forward," said Eugene O'Donnell, a veteran Brooklyn cop and prosecutor and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Which is to say that Democratic voters expecting their new mayor to take a real bite out of the anti-terror tactics they find troublesome — the same way many Obama supporters expected him to close Gitmo and rein in the national security state — might be setting themselves up for disappointment.

Christine Quinn has promised to keep on Ray Kelly as police commissioner. She demurred when asked whether that meant Cohen would stay, too. "I don't know what I would do with those people," she said in an interview with Daily Intelligencer. "I don't have plans yet for other people in the police department. I know there's been concerns raised about David Cohen."

She pointed to the inspector-general law she recently helped pass over the mayor's veto as the obvious fix to the messy question of surveillance. "I'm the only person running for office who can tell you they passed legislation that will reform stop-and-frisk and take steps to reform Muslim surveillance," she said. (Progressive critics may note Quinn wants to "reform" Muslim surveillance rather than halt it.)

Likewise, two-term former city comptroller Bill Thompson is hesitant to say he would do away with spying entirely. "I don't think you want to end, I don't think you want to abolish," he said. "I've been very clear that we're not going to be maintaining surveillance on people because of who they are, and we're not going to be infiltrating mosques because they're mosques. The NYPD will follow leads if they have leads."

Bill de Blasio, the Democratic front-runner who has rocketed to the top of the polls in large part by criticizing Kelly and stop-and-frisk, has been reluctant to wade into the discussion at length, releasing statements of outrage but declining to answer more than one direct question about it in an interview.

"We need to focus on security of course, but we have to do it in a manner that respects civil liberties and is based on specific leads and a thorough process," he told Daily Intelligencer in Union Square recently, when asked if there was a difference between his stance and Quinn's on this issue. "I think an independent inspector general is going to help make sure that happens. Certainly, the notion that organizations that are part of our community, houses of worship are being targeted on a broad basis is very much a concern of mine. I think we need a strong independent inspector general, and I think we need a new police commissioner committed to getting the relationship between police and community right."

O'Donnell, the John Jay College professor, expects De Blasio, if elected, would make small tweaks at the margins rather than turning the city's anti-terrorism programs upside down. "You campaign on civil liberties and govern on security," he said. 

The two candidates taking a harder stand against the practice, Anthony Weiner and John Liu, are considered also-rans in Tuesday's primary. Weiner, whose wife Huma is Muslim and who recently endured some heckling on the campaign trail as a result of that fact, offers perhaps the most fiery statement of indignation. "It's indefensible," he said. "It's lazy police work."

And Liu was the only candidate at a Muslim community forum back in May to indicate he thinks the general practice of surveillance based on religion or ethnicity is unconstitutional. “No offense to you guys here," he said, referring to his rivals. "How can anyone think it’s okay to surveil and spy on people just because they’re Muslim?”