On Thursday, former New York City mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg doubled down in a newly released PBS interview and defended the widely criticized surveillance program that targeted, profiled and spied on Muslim Americans in the city.
“Did you think it was necessary to single out Muslim Americans in that way and would you do that as president?” asked “PBS NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff.
“There’s no question about where the terrible people ― who committed the terrible atrocities of the three airplane crashes and all the people getting killed ― where they came from, so it was the natural place to go,” Bloomberg responded.
For nearly two decades, government agencies locally and nationally have implemented policies, like the New York Police Department’s surveillance program, that targeted Muslims under the guise of national security. They’ve produced no significant gains while severely undermining Muslim Americans’ civil rights.
“When politicians are not held accountable for their policies and legislation that negatively impacts marginalized communities, we only continue to see the progression of those types of policies,” said Hoda Hawa, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
Despite numerous calls by advocacy groups for Bloomberg to apologize and condemn the police surveillance program, the billionaire stood his ground in the PBS interview and even went on to say that spying on American Muslims was “a natural place to go.”
“But it wasn’t a religion that killed them,” said Woodruff, referring to the Sept. 11 victims.
“All of the people came from the same place and all that came were from a place they happened to be one religion,” said Bloomberg of the 9/11 terrorists. “And if they’d been another religion, we would’ve done the same thing.”
Muslim rights advocates said they were alarmed by Bloomberg’s unwavering conviction and deeply concerned over his inflammatory remarks implying that the Muslim community deserved to be surveilled.
Farhana Khera, the executive director at Muslim Advocates, told HuffPost that Bloomberg’s latest comments only made things worse. Her organization filed a civil rights lawsuit against New York City in 2012. After a federal appeals court slammed the surveillance activities, a settlement required the NYPD to cease its efforts and pay businesses and mosques for income lost as a result of the targeting and related stigma.
“He has an obligation to correct the record and stop misleading the public about what this program was, and certainly the legalities of it,” said Khera.
The NYPD surveillance program, which was exposed in 2011, placed undercover law enforcement officers and informants in predominantly Muslim communities where they surveilled mosques, took pictures of worshippers and hung out in Muslim-owned businesses and hookah bars. The NYPD didn’t stop its efforts at city or even state lines, spying on people in New Jersey and Connecticut including students at local universities outside its jurisdiction.
New York City’s surveillance program was not the first time Muslim civil rights were disproportionately targeted in the wake of 9/11. In 2002, President George W. Bush implemented the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a program that registered all male foreign nationals 16 years or older from 25 predominantly Arab and Muslim-majority countries.
Like the NYPD program, the federal initiative did not result in a single terrorism conviction and was largely described as a policy failure that served only to vilify Muslims.
Even after the Department of Homeland Security terminated the program during the Obama administration, not a single politician was held accountable for the damage inflicted upon the Muslim community. In 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump felt free to follow in the footsteps of NSEERS and say he would “absolutely” require Muslims in the U.S. to register in a database.
“NSEERS never achieved a single terrorism-related conviction and it violated people’s rights. Yet there was no real meaningful accountability for that kind of program,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project, which advocates for national security policies in line with the Constitution and civil liberties.
The Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) project, developed by Homeland Security in 2015, is another problematic program that disproportionately targeted the Muslim community at large. Civil rights organizations contend that it was both ineffective as a strategy and discriminatory in practice.
According to the CVE webpage, the program was designed to take “proactive measures” against extremism by recruiting community leaders to assist the government in identifying those who might be “at risk of becoming violent extremists.” In exchange, their communities would get millions of dollars in grant money.
But in reality, the CVE program, like NSEERS and the NYPD surveillance, only helped to reinforce false Islamophobic stereotypes that Muslim Americans pose a grave threat of terrorism. (Multiple studies have shown that far-right domestic terrorism has actually become a more dire threat to the American public than groups like ISIS or al Qaeda.)
These programs use religion and national origin as a proxy for threat or suspicion when what they are is nothing but policy based on suspicionless bigotry. Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project
“These programs use religion and national origin as a proxy for threat or suspicion when what they are is nothing but policy based on suspicionless bigotry,” said Shamsi.
Advocates remain concerned, however, that the official failure to acknowledge and take responsibility for the grave harms resulting from these programs encourages the use of similar programs in the future.
“There’s always the risk that we will go back to really terrible policies,” said Shamsi, “since there’s been no meaningful accountability for these massive rights abuses.”