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Mike Bloomberg says spying on Muslims in New York was 'right thing to do'

Rights groups rebuked US presidential candidate over defending surveillance programme
Mike Bloomberg: 'It's okay to go where you think there might be information that would be useful in keeping us safe.' (Reuters)
By Ali Harb in Washington

US presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg has defended the surveillance programme against Muslim communities that he oversaw as mayor of New York City after the 9/11 attacks, saying that sending informants to spy on mosques was "the right thing to do".

Bloomberg, who has been making efforts to court Arab and Muslim voters, said the programme was entirely "within the law" and aimed to gather as much information as possible to "protect the country".

Arab and Muslim civil rights groups have denounced Bloomberg over the surveillance scheme, accusing him of anti-Muslim bigotry and calling on him to apologise.

But the former mayor struck a defiant tone in an interview with PBS NewsHour broadcast on Thursday, saying that the city's Muslim community was the "natural place" for the police to keep under surveillance because all the 9/11 attackers had been Muslim.

'The NYPD literally mapped our communities across three states, causing systemic self-censoring, distrust of any interaction with the government and untold harm to our communities'

- Maya Berry, AAI

"It's okay to go where you think there might be information that would be useful in keeping us safe," Bloomberg said.

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He added that there were imams at the time who were "publicly urging terrorism".

"It does not incidentally mean that all Muslims are terrorists or all terrorists are Muslim," Bloomberg said. "But the people that flew those planes came from the Middle East and some of the imams were urging more of the same."

It was not clear if Bloomberg was accusing American imams of calling for militant attacks, but the New York Police Department's surveillance programme did not lead to any arrests.

'Absolutely false'

Muslim Advocates, a civil rights group that sued New York City over the spying scheme, was quick to denounce Bloomberg's latest statement, saying that the ex-mayor's assertion the programme was legal was false.

"The idea that the NYPD surveilled Muslims in just a few mosques with court approval is a fantasy. In reality, the NYPD filmed, tracked and monitored Muslims in mosques, restaurants, schools and more, with cameras and undercover officers - all without their knowledge, in New York and New Jersey," said the group's executive director, Farhana Khera.

"Further, it is absolutely false that the courts sided with Bloomberg and the NYPD."

Muslim Advocates cited a 2015 federal court of appeals opinion that rejected the police department's conduct and compared it to major civil rights violations against various ethnic and religious groups throughout the past century.

"What occurs here in one guise is not new. We have been down similar roads before," the court wrote at the time.

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"Jewish Americans during the 'red scare', African Americans during the civil rights movement, and Japanese Americans during World War Two are examples that readily spring to mind."

New York City eventually settled a lawsuit relating to the spying that led to the banning of investigations based on race or religion.

Muslim Advocates added on Thursday that the programme "was a massive civil rights breach that caused lasting harm to countless innocent American Muslims". 

'Untold harm'

Presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has been especially vocal against Bloomberg's candidacy, said the country should not elect someone "who defends bigoted practices".

The Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington-based thinktank, also denounced Bloomberg after the NewsHour interview.

"As mayor, Michael Bloomberg surveilled where American Muslims ate, socialised, gathered, prayed and studied," AAI executive director Maya Berry said in a statement. 

"The NYPD literally mapped our communities across three states, causing systemic self-censoring, distrust of any interaction with the government and untold harm to our communities."

Berry added that Bloomberg's response to questions about the programme were inexcusable. "One’s ethnicity or faith is not grounds for law enforcement scrutiny."

The scheme targeted restaurants, hangout spots, mosques and Muslim student organisations. 

According to former AP reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, the NYPD sent out informants known as "rakers" and "mosque crawlers" to infiltrate campuses and places of worship.

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"Police amassed data on innocent people, often for their religious and political beliefs," the reporters wrote in their 2013 book, Enemies Within.

Bloomberg, who rose in the polls for the presidential race after spending hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money on campaign ads, defended his record with the Muslim community on Thursday. He said he stood by Muslim New Yorkers' right to build a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center despite the criticism from rightwing activists. 

Earlier this week, Abed Ayoub, legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said an apology for the spying programme would be a first step for repairing the "harm" it had caused, but that it would not fix the issue.

After Thursday, it appeared that even an apology was unlikely. (Bloomberg has apologised for his stop-and-frisk programme that critics said targeted black and Latino communities.)

"Throughout his career, Michael Bloomberg has shown that he has no regard or value towards Muslim communities," Ayoub told MEE on Tuesday.

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