The Absurd, Almost Comic Folly of Michael Bloomberg’s Muslim Surveillance

And why he should absolutely be blamed for it.

Michael Bloomberg looks over Muslims kneeling in prayer.
Michael Bloomberg stands by as the congregation prays in the Inam Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Queens, New York City, on March 28, 2003. Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

Tonight, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg will be joining the Democratic presidential debate stage for the second time. At the last debate, he faced a sustained assault on his record, including questions about his support for the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, his comments on redlining, and his history of sexism and harassment complaints in the workplace. Not mentioned was the sprawling effort to spy on Muslims under his administration, which has received its own wave of scrutiny in recent days, with one outlet calling it a “Stasi-style police and surveillance operation.” Asked about the program at a campaign event, Bloomberg replied: “I’m the biggest supporter of the Muslim community. I supported the mosque. What are you talking about?

I grew up in Newark, New Jersey, just outside New York City. I turned 13 in 2002, the first year of Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor, and the year Muslim surveillance first ramped up in and around the city. To grow up as a young Muslim man in the area then was to feel the constant sense that someone was watching you, a paranoia that, years later, turned out to be warranted. I’m still not sure people realize the almost comic extent of the surveillance, the absurd resources that went into it, and how toxic its legacy really is.

So I turned to Ramzi Kassem, a professor at CUNY School of Law and the founding director of CLEAR, a project to help Muslims and others fight law enforcement bias. He was also one of the architects of the legal fight against the surveillance program, and he previously helped me understand how it may have affected me in my own run-ins with the NYPD as a young man. Over the phone, Kassem explained how the program worked, how utterly ineffective it was, and how Bloomberg’s endorsement of it helped usher in Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Aymann Ismail: Let’s just have you first explain how the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program worked.

Ramzi Kassem: Quite simply, it was a secret program that targeted every conceivable aspect of Muslim public life in New York City, and even beyond New York City. They kept secret police files on Muslim restaurants, Muslim bookshops, mosques, activist groups, Muslim student organizations at various universities and colleges, including the one where I work, the City University of New York, since various CUNY campuses were targeted.

Basically, it was this idea that the American Muslim community here in New York City had to be mapped exhaustively, the way a foreign occupying military force might map populations on hostile terrain. Except that here, we were talking about Muslim Americans—Muslim New Yorkers who were paying the NYPD to do this to them, unbeknownst to them.

All of this happened under Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s watch and with his blessing. And when it became public in 2011, when these documents, these secret police reports mapping hookah shops and bookshops, were leaked to the press, Bloomberg’s defense of it was that it was harmless and that it was lawful.

My organization, CLEAR, and other groups in partnership with the communities that were affected by this published a report titled “Mapping Muslims,” debunking the claim by Bloomberg and his police commissioner at the time, Ray Kelly, that surveillance was harmless. And we also sued, in partnership with the ACLU and the New York Civil Liberties Union, to challenge the legality and the constitutionality of the program. That’s a lawsuit we ultimately prevailed in.

I was a student at Rutgers in New Jersey, so not particularly close to Manhattan. I remember going to meetings for Muslim students and noticing adults in the room. I’m from Newark, so I know what it looks like when someone’s wearing a flak jacket underneath their shirt. And I remember noticing that, but thinking in the back of my head: “Oh, I shouldn’t be paranoid. Maybe they are just curious or want to get involved and help us in some way.” And in hindsight I’m wondering: “Oh my God, maybe that was an NYPD officer. Maybe I wasn’t being paranoid.”

Look, unfortunately, your reaction is not a sign of paranoia or craziness, and it’s not isolated or unique. Many in the American Muslim community in various spaces like the one that you’re describing—like a student organization or association, many in places of worship, like mosques, many in youth centers—all felt the same thing. And that’s because that was happening. It was happening at the hands of the NYPD and other agencies like the FBI.

We know from the NYPD’s own previously secret records that they went beyond New York City. They went to New Jersey, they went to Rutgers, they went to Connecticut, they went overseas even. So they didn’t limit their activity and their infiltration to just New York City. So you, being at Rutgers, in New Jersey, part of the student organization, it’s not at all far-fetched to think that the NYPD would have had informants there. In fact, that’s been confirmed by their own records.

I’m actually shook because this whole time, I felt like no matter what I did, no matter how I felt on the inside, I was going to always just be considered another Muslim kid. And by being another Muslim kid, I was a potential threat.

The effect is exactly what you felt and are describing. It’s something we were able to document. College students were afraid to discuss religion. They were afraid to discuss politics, civil rights, international affairs because they had internalized the assumption of surveillance. And so that had a hugely disruptive effect, basically, to their ability to enjoy what should be a normal college life where you explore ideas freely without fear of government surveillance or retribution, because they were being spied upon.

Folks would say things to us when we interviewed them, like, “You look at your closest friends and ask yourself, ‘Are they informants?’ ” Another person said, “I don’t want any new friends. If I don’t know you or your family or know that you have a family that I can take you back to, I don’t want to know you.” So that kind of reaction, that kind of suspicion of new people who come into a mosque, that kind of suspicion of converts is a sort of natural result of surveillance.

The kinds of effects that we saw are the reasons why we sued the NYPD to limit its ability to spy on constitutionally protected activities in that way.

And that was a lawsuit we brought with the participation and support of a movement for police accountability here in New York City that drew the connections between stop and frisk and surveillance, that said these are twin forms of profiling. They grow from the same kind of flawed ideology that provides thin window dressing, false theoretical justification for both stop and frisk and surveillance. The other thing that both theories have in common is that they’re very thin window dressing for outright racial profiling. It raises constitutional legal problems, obviously. It chills people’s political and religious expression. But it’s a waste of law enforcement resources as well.

What do you say to people who might say: “This was post-9/11. The threat was unclear. What were they supposed to do?”

Police should focus on methodology, not ideology. They should look for objective indicators that someone is about to do something. Are they purchasing weapons? Are they purchasing components that could be used to make an explosive device? Things of that nature are much more likely to get you to arrest somebody who’s about to commit a criminal act, terrorism, or anything, really, rather than going after people who are critical of U.S. foreign policy on Twitter and placing student groups under surveillance because they’re organizing events and inviting speakers.

I read that the whole program yielded zero leads. Did the NYPD uncover anything useful from this program?

I mean, that’s a great question for the NYPD. What you just said is totally accurate. I think you’re basically paraphrasing what Thomas Galati, who was the commanding officer of what was then the NYPD Intelligence Division—it’s now the Intelligence Bureau—said under oath in June 2012. And his direct quote from his sworn testimony in a deposition was, “I never made a lead from the rhetoric that came from a demographics report, and I’m here since 2006.” So in six years, out of all of this activity by the Demographics Unit—going into hookah joints and restaurants and cafés and all that, creating these detailed reports on how there’s this deli on the corner of this street and there’s a Muslim who makes sandwiches at that deli, reports like that—he said that out of all of that kind of reporting in six years, they didn’t make a single lead. Once these reports were leaked to the Associated Press, all these secret police documents about restaurants and bookstores and the like—

Which got later used for fake Yelp reviews, right?

Exactly. I can’t lie, some of them are on point, though. I see some restaurants in there, I’m like, “Yeah, they do have great kebabs there.” I got to agree with whoever it is that wrote some of the reports, on some points.

Remember, at the time, Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Kelly, they were saying that surveillance is harmless, and that surveillance is lawful. They were doubling down. They weren’t apologizing for it at the time. And so the people on the receiving end, our clients and other Muslims like them, said, We know from our experience that that’s not true. So they asked us at CLEAR to put out a report that proved how harmful surveillance was, and that resulted in “Mapping Muslims.” And they also asked us to look into the constitutionality of surveillance. Just like you said, this can’t be legal, they said the same thing.

Should we hold Bloomberg specifically responsible for the surveillance of Muslims?

The program was founded and grew under his watch. He came into office in 2002. 2002 is when Bloomberg brought in David Cohen from the CIA to rebuild this program. So this was all done with the blessing of Mayor Mike Bloomberg at the time. Cohen, who led the NYPD Intelligence Division at the time, all of these people answered to Bloomberg. So it’s not a coincidence that he comes into office in 2002 and these things start to happen in 2002. The bulk of the program was developed and grown under his watch.

And then when it became public in 2011, when the Associated Press started publishing these reports that were leaked from the NYPD showing how they were spying on Muslims secretly, what was his response? Again, his response was to defend it. He doubled down. He didn’t apologize. He said, No, this is lawful and it’s harmless and it’s necessary. This is all false—we demonstrated it to be false. But Bloomberg defended the program, the same way with stop and frisk. He defended stop and frisk for a very long time. I mean, now he’s singing a different tune because he’s trying to get elected to national office, and he’s trying to get black folks to vote for him. But the reality is he was the main overseer for both stop and frisk and surveillance. Those things happened under his watch. These are plain, historical facts, not political campaigning on behalf of or against any candidate.

The Muslim surveillance program didn’t come up at the last debate. What question would you have asked Bloomberg?

Oh, that’s a really good question. I would ask him if he thinks of the Muslim surveillance program the same way today that he did back when he was in power in New York city as mayor. And I’d love to hear what he has to say. Has his opinion changed? Why? How has it changed?

Maybe he’d throw Muslims under the bus and say, Well, I don’t agree with stop and frisk anymore, which he’s already said publicly, but I still agree with what I did to the Muslims. I’d be curious to hear how that’s a tenable position. Because as you and I were talking about earlier, and as I’ve explored in my own research and writing, both programs are fruit that are born of the same tree. It’s the same kind of flawed logic and reasoning that leads you to both programs.

And frankly there’s a straight line that connects that kind of racism to larger expressions of the same racism that we’ve seen with the Muslim ban under Trump. The fact that Mayor Bloomberg could be so open in his defense of stop-and-frisk and in his defense of the Muslim surveillance program set the stage for Trump many years later to be so open and brazen in his defense of the Muslim ban. Those things are not disconnected. They’re not identical, but they’re on that same spectrum. And it may well be that Trump’s antics wouldn’t have been possible if people like Bloomberg hadn’t laid the foundation for them.