Friday, February 24, 2012

Has NYPD Gone Too Far In Surveillance Efforts Looking For Islamic Extremists?

Following the intel failures that led to the US government being unprepared for the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD vastly expanded its intel efforts, including establishing outposts in foreign countries to bring in intel directly from those foreign countries instead of relying solely on the FBI or CIA.

Those surveillance efforts include looking for Muslim extremists in the New York City metro area - including in New Jersey. While the NYPD can claim that they've thwarted numerous plots involving Islamic terrorists since 9/11, there have been several notable failures, including the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shazad. In that case, police didn't know of the plot to attack Times Square with a bomb planted in a SUV. Police learned of the incident after a local vendor alerted police to the smoking vehicle and it was only after conducting standard investigation techniques that Shazad was arrested.

As a result of the revelations about the scope of the surveillance, Muslim groups across the region are speaking out against the NYPD spying efforts, noting that it's a potential civil rights violation. They have a point, and while then-New Jersey Governor Richard Codey was informed of the spying efforts in places like Newark and elsewhere in the state, it doesn't mean that there was sufficient oversight.

Following the NYPD's illegal surveillance of radical groups during the 1970s, the NYPD entered into an agreement in 1985 called Handschu that required oversight of surveillance operations.
The Handschu agreement, as it is often referred to, was established in 1985 after decades of covert NYPD infiltration of activist groups including the New York City chapter of the Black Panthers. It also kept tabs on citizens who had done nothing more than sign a petition to end the Vietnam war, reporting their political positions to potential employers.

The element of the NYPD responsible for this surveillance went through a number of names, including the Italian squad, the black hand squad, and the bureau of special services. Today it is known as the intelligence division.

Handschu restricted the department's powers to monitor political groups, stipulating that police needed information indicating that a crime was being committed in order to investigate political activity. The rules remained in place for over 15 years.

In 2002 the NYPD, under the guidance of former CIA officer Cohen, lobbied to have Handschu's restrictions significantly loosened, following the September 11 attacks of the previous year. The department argued that it could not effectively fight terrorism with the rules in place.

The NYPD largely got what it wanted in 2003, when significant modifications were made to the agreement.

Civil rights attorney Jethro Eisentstein, who is involved in a class action lawsuit against the NYPD in relation to Handschu, says what remains of the agreement is vitally important to the latest revelations concerning the NYPD's surveillance of Muslim communities.
Specifically, Handschu required that surveillance operations must secure a warrant from a three-person panel comprised of two police commissioners and a mayor-appointed civilian. That was modified in 2003 when the panel was reduced to a single person.

It's the reduction of the panel to a single person that opens the door to mischief and it's time to restore a 3-person panel. That wont necessarily eliminate all warrants along these lines, but introduces a level of oversight lacking when you have a single person who is intent upon investigations that might lead to violations of civil rights (to say nothing of accusations of malfeasance).

Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Ray Kelly are defending the actions, and Bloomberg calls critics naive. Sorry, but that doesn't quite cut it. While there are indeed serious concerns about terror groups operating in the NYC metro area based on past history (both the 9/11 attackers and the 1993 WTC bombers had ties to the metro area), wholesale spying on an entire community is overbroad. It also reduces the level of trust between the Muslim community that would be willing to work with law enforcement to root out extremists in their midst and actually makes it more difficult to track down those who might be plotting attacks down the line.

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