The Spying Has Already Begun With More Surveillance to Come

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Senator Ted Cruz of Texas speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

 

How Ted Cruz’s Constitutional Hypocrisy Shields the Left of Its Complicity

Former Republican presidential candidate, Ted Cruz made a public statement the morning of March 22nd in light of the Brussels attack. With dozens dead and hundreds injured, the act of terror had the city of Brussels reeling, and policy and security experts scrambled to find solutions to prevent further terror plots from occurring again. Immediately following the attack, Cruz’s direct statements did not waver, including calling for the surveillance of Muslim communities. Even before the victims of the attacks could even be identified, Cruz took what some would call  ‘opportunistic and politically-motivated’ actions.

Fortunately, a wave of discontent gave shame to Cruz’s comments about patrolling Muslim communities throughout the United States and Europe. Arguably, the most notably appalled by Senator Cruz’s comments were the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blassio and the New York City Police commissioner, William “Bill” Bratton. The pair held a joint press conference, in which they admonished the senator’s comments and reminded him that the country doesn’t need a president that doesn’t respect the values that form the foundation of this country.” After the public statements, the men seemed proud of their work and literally patted one another on the back. In the following days after his public appearance, Chief Bratton continued to write an oped on the subject, scorching Cruz’s understanding of the NYPD’s spying efforts.

Cruz is convinced that the NYPD spying unit came to an end under the pressure of political correctness, while Bratton maintains that the goal of the Demographics Unit was to map-out the diverse nature of the city and dwindle down to two officers. Both men are wrong and this shows an attempt by the chief to gaslight his readers on the true nature of what happened in the department years ago. Mayor de Blassio himself isn’t innocent either as a quick look into the past and recent court filings will show.

Mayor de Blassio’s office found itself in the middle of a lawsuit brought forth by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the nonprofit group Muslim Advocates in June 2012 on behalf of 11 plaintiffs from the New Jersey area. The plaintiffs consisted of mosque leaders, former and current college students, a school administrator and an Iraq war veteran. They were all convinced that they were unconstitutionally spied on, solely based on their religious and ethnic backgrounds. A timeline of the lawsuit in Hassan v. City of New York can be viewed here.

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Officer monitoring security footage in the New York Police Department. Image Source: Information Security Newspaper

The first lawsuit was struck down by a federal judge who said that there was nothing unconstitutional about spying on Muslim communities in the areas of New York and New Jersey. The judge sided with the mayor’s office, stating that the suit was only brought in after the discovery of the NYPD’s spying by the press and that no sole individual in the suit was mentioned by name. However, with much persistence, the plaintiffs were able to have their voices heard in an appeal set by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the fall of 2015. It seems as though before Cruz’s call for patrolling Muslim neighborhoods, de Blassio was not only a supporter of such spying, but a staunch defender by his consistent scapegoating on the press that reported the unconstitutional tactics being conducted by the NYPD.

With all of this information permeating to the public courts, who would be deemed responsible for opening up that can of worms? Well that would be accredited to the Associated Press’ reporters Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo.They led the efforts in uncovering the intricate and well-funded spy unit rising out of the New York City police department. The reports laid out details about a sector of the NYPD named the Demographics Unit. They uncovered unconstitutional tactics of information-gathering, transferring information to the Central Intelligence Agency through unofficial channels, and releasing informants for unwarranted spying with little or no leads on crimes committed.

The reports from the AP consisted of mutiple documents from the program itself, verified by officers working within the department. The American Civil Liberties Union compiled a factsheet with an outline of the work done by NYPD’s intelligence unit, which spanned over several states and its selective spying on “ancestries of interest”. The AP also profiled an informant who worked with the unit who spoke about his job as a “raker”, in which he spied on Muslim student groups and gathered information around the city.

The most revealing aspects the AP’s investigation into the unit was its close partnership with former members of the CIA that lead the department’s intelligence efforts, as it is illegal for the CIA to conduct spying domestically. Former agent David Cohen was brought into the NYPD fold only a few months after the attack on the twin towers. He, along with Larry Sanchez (another former CIA agent), were put in charge of the intelligence unit and tasked with training NYC’s finest on information-gathering techniques. One of the tactics included using traffic stops as a means of weeding out potential informants or suspicious activity.

Cohen’s previous unconventional practices also led to the illegal detention of protestors by the Hudson River during the 2004 GOP convention, which has since led the city to settle at nearly $18 million dollars in damages. Anyone can see that Cohen’s CIA training and use of force is doing more harm to the city than good, but it seems as though it’s the direction city leaders wish to take.

Where was the press? Only the AP’s reporters paid attention, but others should have been following-up on their revelations about the unit’s unwarranted spying. To the contrary, many publications attacked the AP for their work with little follow-up. Publications such as the NY Post and NY Daily News wrote editorials that bashed critics of the NYPD spy unit, as well as the AP reporters for their publications.

While questioning the relevancy of this information, it helps to listen back to Cruz’s call to action. One of the communities Cruz consistently points to as an example of needing patrolling, is the Somali Muslim community in the Twin Cities. This is a community that has suffered from the focus of law enforcement and terrorist recruiters in the past, and now both forces hope to increase their efforts among the community.

In the past years, Minnesota has had countless numbers of young men leave behind their lives for the battlefields of East Africa by joining the terrorist group known as Al Shabaab. That brought Somalis into the spotlight early on with initiatives to stem the flow of recruits leaving the country as far back as 2009. ISIS’s effort to fill up its ranks with local Minnesotans has amplified the threat of recruitment in the past years. Due to this, many law enforcement officials and community leaders have proposed initiatives aimed at suppressing recruitment efforts by investing in the Somali community.

Behind much of this push for federal and local law enforcement involvement is Minnesota District Attorney General Andrew Luger, who has steadfastly insisted that the community leaders would pave the counter violent extremism program. In February of 2015, a delegation of Somali Minnesotans joined the attorney general and others at a summit on countering violent extremism held at the White House. Some say this cooperation of community leaders is needed in order to rid the state of its fears on recruitment, but others say it belittles efforts already being made by Somali leaders and is only a front for governmental overreach.

According to the Intercept, previous community outreach programs associated with local law enforcement used the guise of social service provisions as a tool for amassing information on what they saw as potential recruits for extremism. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU’s School of Law obtained documents from 2009 that depicted the true nature of these programs focused on gathering intelligence. Michael Price, an attorney at the Brennan Center, was shocked that there was little distinction for those uninterested in the services provided by the outreach groups and how quickly they were labeled and suspected of wrongdoing.

Tactics such as these have driven many community advocates and leaders to grow weary of programs offered through law enforcement or joint cooperation with these agencies. Organizations ranging from student associations, religious centers and nonprofit groups came together to voice their concerns in a letter titled: Minnesota Muslims Concerned About New ‘Stigmatizing, Divisive, and Ineffective’ CVE Pilot Program. The letter is signed by over 40 different groups that share the concern of intelligence-gathering over their respective and collective communities.

Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of Minnesota’s chapter in the Council on American Islamic Relations, has been a notable opponent on the dragnet spying over the Somali Muslim community. In early April of 2016, CAIR-MN held an event at the State Office Building with many local leaders that shared the same observations about the program. Some of the leaders included former NAACP Saint Paul, chapter president Nathaniel Khaliq, and Black Lives Matter Minnesota chapter leader, Rashad Turner, who is a recent convert. They all expressed doubts about the true motives behind the CVE programs being offered.

In connection, House Democrats in the Minnesota’s Senate have been pushing for funding for programs as well. Representative Phyllis Khan proposed a $2 million dollar budget out of the state’s $1.2 billion surplus for programs aimed at reducing the flow of recruits leaving Minnesota from the Somali community. The talk of budgeting and programming proposals shows a heightened focus on the community, and recent events dovetail why.

One of the young men being accused (who has been arrested for his suspected support of the terrorist group ISIS) became the sixth to plead guilty to charges leveled against him. Federal agents intercepted Hamza Ahmed and three others on their way to the JFK Airport as they traveled there via Greyhound. The agents allowed them to travel back to Minnesota, but upon their return the agents decided to arrest and charge the young men.

Ahmed is one of nine young men (aged in their late teens to early 20s) accused of conspiring to partake in terror plots abroad and give material aid to ISIS. The rest are set for trial this month of May 2016. Many people advocating a watchful eye over the Somali community have used these young men as examples for the need of the CVE initiatives, while critics express the view that many of these charges are overblown, pointing to the fact that so far the main evidence used against them has come from a paid informant who received $41,000 from the FBI to entrap them in order to bolster their claims of recruitment, even though it’s through their efforts.

A judge has allowed the defense to incorporate this new information on the informant for future proceedings as they move forward. The bureau is known for their bait-and-switch practices, with past reports detailing how the FBI is behind almost all major terror plots hatched in the U.S..

The efforts to redress the CVE program’s efforts in the state have continued on through media campaigns and AG Luger’s constant outreach. The StarTribune wrote an editorial on the program, hoping its lighthearted and cheerful take could persuade the public that law enforcement-associated community outreach programs are a beautiful thing and not governmental intrusion, by literally using the word “beautiful” in the title.

The article is titled: Countering Extremism in Minnesota: A Beautiful Goal, Barely Begun. The article spotlights the Cedar-Riverside community of Minneapolis and gives access to the West Bank Athletic Club and its soccer coach,  Ahmed Ismail. The authors give  a sad and struggling description of the recreation center and the equipment used by the soccer team. “There are no goal nets at today’s practice and just one soccer ball so worn [that] its patches are barely visible.” The implications here show a community with little resources, which is not far from the truth. However, painting a picture that Somalis are in need of publicly-funded resources solely to root out radicalized members of the community paint them in a one dimensional aspect of constant victimization to the enticing siren calls of extremism.

The StarTribine praised AG Luger’s efforts on community engagement, and fail to report on past discrepancies of spying on Somalis in Minnesota. However,there wanted to do more than to belittle the legitimate worries by Mr. Hussein of CAIR-MN to be weary, and attributed that to the Somalis’ past history in their own country of government abuse instead of the extensive history that the U.S. harbors on civil rights abuses. They also chalked up his concerns to be as ‘overlooking and underestimating’ Minnesota’s good faith, and that he  should be more proud of the changes being made. The article continues with a sob story about their spotlighted community center, which truly is in need for funding. However, their main goal in the article seems to be gaining support for CVE.

As time passes and the courts commence with their trials, Minnesota will surely be seen throughout the country as a recruiting hub for extremist groups as long as the media plays the narrative. Although it is true that there is an issue of terror groups preying upon the young, impressionable and disenfranchised Somalis, it’s up to the greater public not to give into the fears generated by any source of authority hoping to exploit such tragedies for further injustices.

The notion that the Somali Muslim American community in Minnesota is a starter for tracking terrorists is unconstitutional and immoral. Somalis have come to Minnesota for its rich opportunities and inspiring promises for a new future, but to take that away from them and treat them as some sort of “other” would be against the beliefs this country was founded upon. At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin so poignantly stated, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”