December 16, 2016 11:28AM

Peter King Wants Nationwide Surveillance of Muslim Americans

Rep. Peter King (R-NY), fresh out of a meeting at Trump Tower yesterday, said he pressured President-elect Donald Trump to implement a nationwide surveillance program directed at Muslim Americans "similar to what" existed in the New York Police Department's Demographics Unit under Commissioner Ray Kelly.

Rep. King insisted that the NYPD program “which unfortunately the civil liberties union and The New York Times didn’t like ... [was] very effective in stopping terrorism and really should be a model for the country.”

There is little evidence that the program "stopped terrorism," and Rep. King did not provide any revelations. The evidence we do have (much of it from agents themselves) points in the opposite direction. In more than a decade of pervasive surveillance, the program simply didn't work.

I wrote about that NYPD program back in March, when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) made a similar suggestion following a terrorist attack in Brussels.

 [T]he police infiltrated mosques, set up surveillance cameras around Muslim-owned businesses and residences, went undercover to monitor everyday conversations, and even infiltrated student groups at schools as far away as Yale and the University of Pennsylvania in order to monitor what students talked about, who they spoke to, and how often they prayed.

The end result of years of Demographic Unit surveillance on American Muslims was… nothing.

No convictions, no prosecutions, and, according to Assistant Chief Thomas Galati, not even a single legitimate lead.

Instead of policing murders and rapes in New York City, agents were busy with things like whitewater rafting trips to upstate New York, where an officer who infiltrated a Muslim student organization took detailed notes of how many times the students prayed and who they talked to.  

While the program failed to generate actionable intelligence about terrorists, it did produce millions of dollars worth of costly litigation over the dubious constitutionality of suspicionless spying against religious communities.

Aside from the inefficacy of the program, it remains unclear how Rep. King expects the president to implement such a program nationwide. Given manpower limitations on federal law enforcement, the most likely avenue for nationwide implementation would be the expansion of federal law enforcement grants, such as the Urban Areas Security Initiative, in order to entice state and local law enforcement agencies to construct surveillance efforts similar to the NYPD program.

UASI grants, which are ostensibly intended to keep Americans safe from terrorists, have been used by state and local police to procure military-grade vehicles, weapons and surveillance technology without going through their local appropriations processes.  Aside from outfitting local police forces like paramilitary units, there is little evidence that such grants have made Americans safer.  In December of 2012, then-Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) released a damning report on the UASI program, arguing that billions of dollars in federal grants had not made American law enforcement any better at protecting against or reacting to terrorist attacks.

In the sense that terrorism grant programs have already wasted billions of tax dollars and police man-hours while distorting local law enforcement priorities, Rep. King's surveillance program is a perfect fit. But if we want our federal, state, and local law enforcement agents spending their time policing actual crimes rather than counting how many times young Muslims pray while whitewater rafting, New York's failed surveillance program should be left in the past.  The NYPD itself agrees.


For more on domestic surveillance in the War on Terror:

This week Cato hosted our annual Surveillance Conference.  My colleague Patrick Eddington moderated a panel on "countering violent extremism," which is a government program designed to give officials advanced warning of the alleged radicalization process of young Muslims.  The panel included remarks from Maya Berry of the Arab American Institute, Sharia Mayfield of the Oregon Department of Justice (whose father Brandon was falsely accused by the FBI of taking part in the Madrid train bombings), Arjun Singh Sethi of the Sikh Coalition, Mike German of the Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program, and Luther Reynolds of the Montgomery Co. Police Department.