Mike Bloomberg Ran Stasi-Style Police and Surveillance Operations Against Muslim Americans

Professor Nikhil Pal Singh and attorney Diala Shamas are this week’s guests.

Photo Illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Photo: Getty Images

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As mayor of New York, Mike Bloomberg ran a sweeping surveillance operation against Muslim Americans. This week on Intercepted: As Bloomberg nears a half a billion dollars in paid ads for his presidential campaign, he is intensifying his attacks on Sen. Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, the red-baiting smears against Sanders are resurfacing as he surges in national polls. New York University professor Nikhil Pal Singh, author of “Race and America’s Long War,” dissects Bloomberg’s record, his “racial terror” tactics in New York City, and what his candidacy says about the state of electoral politics in the U.S. Attorney Diala Shamas of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who fought Bloomberg over his Muslim surveillance program, describes the New York Police Department’s “Demographics Unit” that targeted Muslim Americans and their businesses, houses of worship, and restaurants. Shamas compares the surveillance program to some of the activities of the East German Stasi secret police and says Bloomberg’s use of the program should be seen as an ominous sign of what he might do as president.


Newscaster: The former New York City mayor releasing an ad attacking the senator’s supporters, the so-called Bernie bros for their behavior online.

Karen Finney: And the Bernie bros again, they’re pretty obnoxious and they’re very sexist and misogynist.

Chris Matthews: What is attacking besides using bad language and scaring people?

TK: They’ve called Elizabeth Warren a snake. They’ve called Pete Buttigieg a rat.

TK: Is that what you want from a Bernie Sanders supporter?

Chris Cuomo: What we used to call “Bernie bros” which I think is now way too limiting a term, savaging them online.

Wolf Blitzer: Does that behavior reflect on Sanders’ ability to bring the country together? You’ve seen all those reports.

Jon Favreau: These people on the left who have large Twitter followings, look I know you don’t like us. I know you’re going to keep fucking tweeting at us, fine, do whatever the fuck you want.

Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake: Hark! Hark!

Bernie Sanders: Now, Mr. Bloomberg, like anybody else has a right to run for president. He does not have a right to buy the presidency.

[Music interlude.]

Jeremy Scahill: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is episode 117 of Intercepted. 

Michael Bloomberg: There was a guy Bernie Sanders who would have beaten Donald Trump. The polls show he would have walked away with it. But Hillary Clinton got the nomination for a variety of reasons. 

JS: Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been absolutely bombarding the television, radio, internet airwaves with a nearly half billion dollar advertising blitz. And that is just the publicly reported number. 

MB [in Spanish]: Juntos vamos a reconstruir la nación. Soy Mike Bloomberg y apruebo este mensaje.

JS: Bloomberg has already hired a staff of thousands of people across the country — that’s more than most general election campaigns ever have. He is paying people to manufacture memes on his behalf. 

We should also point out that Bloomberg didn’t just come out of nowhere with this presidential run. He spent years pouring money into local and state candidates and organizations that he — wink-wink — knew would have to back him when he decided to pull the trigger and actually run. In some ways it’s sort of a clever and legalized form of bribery available only to the super rich. And it’s pretty clear that it is a factor in why Bloomberg has gotten some mayors and lawmakers to publicly endorse him. 

And I can’t shake the feeling that the tenor of some of the Bloomberg endorsements and ads, they feel like we are in some scene from the Manchurian candidate as Bloomberg’s well-known, well-documented atrocious record on so many public policies is completely ignored or historically revised.

Frank Sinatra as Ben Marco: Raymond Shaw is the bravest, kindest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.

JS: There are a lot of problems with many of the candidates running for the Democratic nomination. But there are major issues in Mike Bloomberg’s personal, business, and political past that make him a uniquely atrocious candidate to offer up as the person to replace Donald Trump or even as some sort of an acceptable alternative to Trump.

MB: But if there’s anybody that has changed this city, it is Donald Trump. He really has done an amazing thing and this is another part of it. Donald, thank you —

JS: Michael Bloomberg has advocated economic policies that dehumanize and punish the working class. He has opposed increasing the minimum wage. He’s fought unions. He’s even suggested in a way that to be successful at his workplace people should not go to the bathroom or eat. 

MB: Make sure you’re the first one in there, every day and the last one to leave. Don’t ever take a lunch break or go to the bathroom. You keep working. You never know when that opportunity is going to come along.

JS: The way Bloomberg speaks about manual labor seems to have this elitist tinge to it rooted in old-fashioned ignorance.

MB: To be a farmer, it’s a process. You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn.

JS: Bloomberg has not only made utterly racist statements on numerous occasions, he’s implemented policies of racial terror to back up those sentiments.

MB: They just keep saying, “Oh, it’s a disproportionate percentage of a particular ethnic group. That may be but it’s not a disproportionate percentage of those who witnesses and victims describe as committing the murder. In that case, incidentally, I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little.

JS: Michael Bloomberg supported George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and endorsed their re-election. He backed the Iraq War even though he had no public reason to do so and he continues to say that he supports that decision.

Newscaster: Last month, presidential candidate and American oligarch Michael Bloomberg told the LA Times that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a mistake, but one that was made honestly by those in power.

JS: Bloomberg’s statements on Medicare, Medicaid, healthcare in general, include some remarkably cold-hearted comments that boil down to: If you’re old and poor, we should probably cut costs by just letting you die or wither away.

MB: If you show up with prostate cancer and you’re 95, we should say ‘go and enjoy, have a nice day, live a long life.’ There’s no cure and we can’t do anything. If you’re a young person, we should do something about it. Society’s not going to do that yet.

JS: Bloomberg has railed against so-called entitlements — in other words social spending or safety net programs.

MB: Let’s get serious, the entitlements are going to bankrupt us, just like the pension system and health care is going to bankrupt corporations.

JS: Bloomberg also has made astonishingly ignorant statements about education and schools.

MB: You would cut the number of teachers in half, but you would double the compensation of them and you would weed out all the bad ones and just have good teachers. And double the class size with a better teacher is a good deal for the students.

JS: It is clear that Michael Bloomberg is trying to buy this race. And he is trying to also do everything in his power to stop Bernie Sanders from getting the nomination. And we now see Bloomberg running attack ads against Sanders with ominous music making it seem like overwhelmingly random or anonymous social media accounts are actually official Sanders campaign statements or that they’re from his campaign manager or his spokespeople rather than, mostly random people on social media.

[Dramatic music plays.]

Bloomberg also had the audacity to put out a press release attacking Sanders and saying he is a “New Bro” of Donald Trump. Bloomberg was trying to play “OK, Boomer” cute by using the Bernie Bro framing, but you know what? The majority of the Bloomberg campaign’s statement was spent attacking observations made by senior Black women in the Sanders campaign, namely Nina Turner and Briahna Joy Gray.

Bloomberg has far more in common with Donald Trump than he does with ordinary people in this country on a personal and public level. He has dozens and dozens of complaints, lawsuits and non-disclosure agreements stemming from his vile and misogynistic comments about women, about women having children, about women’s bodies and complaints alleging workplace gender-based harassment.

And Bloomberg of course, won’t release any of these women from their non-disclosure agreements so that their stories can be investigated. These are two men, Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg who speak about women in disgusting terms, who have repeated battles with women accusing them of all sorts of misconduct. But they yuck it up on the golf course and as Bloomberg has said, they move in some of the same social circles.

On today’s show, we are going to continue our look into the record of Michael Bloomberg. Later in the show, we are going to examine how Bloomberg presided over an NYPD program to surveil and spy on Muslim Americans, their businesses, and their places of worship. But we begin first with the big picture of what Bloomberg’s campaign means for the Democratic primary and potentially for this country and the world.

I am joined now by Nikhil Pal Singh. He is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University, and Founding Faculty Director of the NYU Prison Education Program. Nikhil is a historian of race, empire, and culture in the 20th-century United States, also the author, most recently, of “Race and America’s Long War.” He is also the author of “Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy.”

Professor Nikhil Pal Singh on Michael Bloomberg and the State of Electoral Politics in the U.S.

JS: Nikhil Pal Singh, welcome back to Intercepted.

Nikhil Pal Singh: Thanks, Jeremy, great to be here.

JS: Your big picture analysis of what’s at play here.

NPS: Bloomberg, clearly, he’s had a plan. He’s had an idea that he could run for higher office that he could essentially crack the Democratic party similar to the way that Trump cracked the Republican party. Of course, Trump didn’t have to use so much of his own money. He doesn’t have as much money as Bloomberg. But I think now the dynamic is a little bit different, the one that Bloomberg is confronting because he’s confronting the momentum that Sanders has had coming out of 2016. And Sanders obviously represents an entirely different trajectory. He represents the possibility of returning the Democratic party to its kind of labor left roots which it abandoned decades ago. 

The fact that Sanders has gotten so much traction, and has so much popularity among ordinary Democrats, as well as among a pretty committed base, I think presents Bloomberg with a real problem. And presents Democrats who call themselves progressives — many of whom have been deeply reliant upon Bloomberg funding at various points whether in their nonprofit careers or in their careers as elected officials — also with a problem. Because Bloomberg is clearly not the candidate who represents the progressive standpoint on issues of racial justice, on issues of gender equality, on schooling, on policing. So how do you then square support for Bloomberg as the kind of candidate that is going to be, say, the one to stop the Sanders momentum?

JS: We’ve seen Bloomberg spending a lot of money, record setting money on ads. But if you go back and look at the last week or so, he got hit very hard by his stop-and-frisk record. And it seems now this week that we’re seeing the kind of official response to that, which is to run attack ads going after alleged Bernie Sanders supporters and saying, “Look at this kind of mob violence and harassment online,” and he’s doing an ad buy now pushing this ad about the so-called Bernie bros.

NPS: It’s so clear what’s happening here. Bloomberg presided over what may be one of the world’s largest municipal police forces, that was essentially committed to a campaign of racial terror in relationship to the city’s Black and Latino residents, some five million stops. You have 90% of the stops-and-frisks being of Black and Latino men and women under the pretext of looking for weapons usually, and they came up with a weapon one percent of the time. So you have stopped five million people and this is your return on a policy that is essentially terrorizing people and they never backed down from it. The courts forced them to abandon it. The police arguably never fully abandoned it. So there’s a kind of stop-and-frisk-light that’s been going on ever since. So it’s still enforced in many respects. And Bloomberg would rather everybody forget this.

So, here we have a kind of classic diversion of our era in which a policy of kind of massive state aggression that ran, let’s say parallel to the massive state aggression of the Iraq war, right. So you’ve got stop-and-frisk on New York City streets. You’ve got torture in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. And now people are turning around and saying, “No, no, no, no, no, the real violence, the real abuse, the real harassment is coming from Bernie Sanders’ troll army.”

Newscaster: Of the Bernie online brigade, and here’s what he says: He says “No other candidate has anything like this sort of digital brown shirt brigade. I mean, except for Donald Trump.”

Joe Biden: The vicious malicious, misogynistic things they said the threats they put out, and to say I disassociate is one thing. Find out who the hell they are. Many of them work for me, fire him, find out.

Reporter: Do you feel like he’s done enough to condemn the culture online that stems from his movement?

Elizabeth Warren: I’ve said before that we are all responsible for what our supporters do.

NPS: I think people know that we live in a society in which state-sanctioned violence has been unleashed over the last couple of decades. And yet most liberals are preferring to look away from that and then to identify the source of violence with something that is actually essentially trivial. And something that does not in any way, put them at risk personally, behind their keyboard in the comfort of their living room where they could easily mute the person who’s saying whatever horrible thing they’re saying. And I’m not saying people should say horrible things to each other online. I don’t think it’s a great practice, but it’s not violence.

JS: You had a pretty provocative tweet over the weekend. And I just want to ask you to extrapolate on it and explain what exactly you’re talking about here. This is what you wrote, “Gonna be wild when Trump runs to the left of Bloomberg on criminal justice reform and cracks 10% of the African-American vote, thus ensuring victory.” First of all, explain why you believe that’s a possibility.

NPS: Trump got 6% of the African American vote in 2016. That once again shows that African American voters are massively committed to vote for the Democratic party as they have been for decades. Most analysts who look at the electoral numbers over the last several elections recognize that one of the measures of Obama’s significant victory in 2008 was a massive turnout of the Democratic base including a heavy turnout among African American voters. That’s always something that the Democratic party is banking on, is hoping for. Trump, I think recognizes especially now an opportunity to shave a little bit of that off, either to suppress the African American vote which is one tactic that Republicans have pursued for the last couple of decades through various kinds of voter suppression measures, or to try to co-opt a little bit of the African American vote by appealing to them on the one issue of reform that the Trump administration has embraced, the First Step Act, criminal justice reform.

And Trump ran an ugly nativist campaign in 2016 and yet he got 28% of the Hispanic vote. People usually don’t realize that. Liberals love to frame the issue as Trump is a racist, Trump is a racist, Trump is a racist. He couldn’t possibly appeal to voters of color. Well, that’s just simply not true. Bloomberg as is opponent is uniquely weak on this issue because of what we’ve already discussed, his practices as mayor of New York City over a very long period of time, in which he presided over a stop-and-frisk policy that is, obviously prima facie in every sense, deeply racist and racially divisive.

JS: You know, Nikhil, one of the reasons I really enjoy speaking with you in this crazy era we’re in is that you’re one of the people I look to who’s able to kind of go up to 30,000 feet and look at the bigger picture. And I’m wondering if you could try to place the Bloomberg candidacy, place it in a broader historical context of the history of presidential elections in this country and what it says about our democratic institutions.

NPS: The fact that Bloomberg can enter with these huge ad buys and this massive payroll suggests just how perilous and dysfunctional our political system has become. It’s not surprising that at this moment in history, we could be actually facing a campaign between two billionaires running what have essentially been kind of astroturf campaigns, “grassroots movement.”

JS: Right, fake grassroots.

NPS: Fake grassroots. That’s what astroturf means. But I think this decay in our politics has been progressing for a long period of time. There’s partisan polarization around mostly cultural issues or issues that are understood to be cultural, even as both parties are heavily, heavily in the pockets of big donor interests and with enormous fealty to corporate interests, to defense interests. So it’s kind of a paradox, right? It’s like, we’re told we’re in this like tremendously polarized era and yet, does the defense budget ever do anything but go up? Is there ever anything less than bipartisan support for measures that are favorable to big corporations? We’re in this period in which American politics has been adrift for a long time, and in which the parties are kind of dis-aligning in different ways.

JS: Amy Klobuchar has really kind of made it a point to point out that she voted for the U.S.-Mexico trade agreement.

Reporter: What do you know about the Mexican president?

Amy Klobuchar: I know that he is the Mexican president.

Reporter: But can you tell me his name?

AK: No.

JS: When the candidates were asked, you know, who’s concerned about the Democrats running a self-avowed socialist, she was the only one who raised her hand.

AK: The question should be why didn’t everyone else raise their hand? But they didn’t because people are looking at each other and it may not be popular and you’re going to anger some people. But I believe in leading and doing what you think is right. And that’s why I raised my hand because I am troubled by having a socialist lead our ticket.

JS: That has segwayed now into a real intensification of red-baiting and going after Sanders.

Chris Matthews: There would have been executions in Central Park and I might have been one of the ones getting executed and certain other people would be there cheering, OK. So I have a problem with people who took the other side. I don’t know who Bernie supports over these years.

JS: And there’s selectively edited video clips that have been circulating around from Bernie Sanders visiting the Soviet Union right before the fall of the Berlin wall where he was praising the veneer of the metro system.

BS: The stations themselves were absolutely beautiful, including many works of art, chandeliers that were beautiful. It was a very, very effective system.

JS: But the way in which that kind of overt red baiting is now intensifying in the campaign, your thoughts on it?

NPS: That’s what they’re going to go for. They’re going to go for the idea that Bernie is the left Trump, that his supporters are a virulent mob, unthinking mob. And that Bernie’s policies are going to lead the country to an era of empty grocery stores and drab gray conformism. You know, the sort of old Cold War sort of visions of state socialism as un-dynamic, as undemocratic, as repressive. And of course, they’re also using the kind of Russiagate stuff against Bernie, you know, like, who would Putin prefer Trump or Sanders? 

JS: I’d like to ask that exact question to some of Hillary Clinton’s most prominent supporters, who they would support, Trump or Sanders?

NPS: Oh, yeah.

JS: I’m dead serious. I’d love to hear the answer to that.

NPS: Oh, I think it’s a very important point because the institutional Democratic party would rather see Sanders lose than win against Trump. I think there’s sensible people in the Democratic party that understand that Sanders is in many ways a very ordinary politician. And although he takes the label Democratic socialism, what he essentially wants is to make the playing field fairer again, to restore higher levels of redistribution, so that ordinary people can access health care and education. Over 50% of American workers earn less than $15 an hour. I mean this, the wealth skew in this country has become so staggering. And most people are struggling to do the basic things like pay rent, educate their children, and get the kind of health care that they need.

JS: I think the real threat to them is a Bernie Sanders victory would necessitate there being huge voter turnout, a groundswell of support for the vision and ideas represented by his campaign, and it would shatter into a million little pieces the way that the Democratic party has existed for many, many decades. That’s the threat to their fiefdom.

NPS: Absolutely. It’s a huge threat to the institutional architecture of the Democratic party, as constructed under the Democratic leadership council and the Clintons which move the party away from its base — in labor and social movements, and in the aspirations of ordinary working people — towards a party that was much more beholden to elite financial and corporate donor interests to match the Republicans; and to then play this kind of forked tongue game where they speak to the needs of ordinary people. Yes, everyone should have health care. But then when it comes down to it, they’re in the boardroom with the lobbyists of United Healthcare, having those lobbyists dictate what is possible in terms of health care policy. Bernie Sanders is the first politician that we have seen in my lifetime who is not going to do that.

And that does not mean that Bernie Sanders will not compromise politically to get things done. He is a pragmatist. He’s been in organized institutional politics for a long time. But Bernie has been very, very clear about his positions, and he hasn’t waffled in the ways that other politicians have. And the Democratic party at its elite institutional level sees that as an existential threat. There’s no question and think about it, what would you prefer another four years at the Center of American Progress where you can fundraise off of every lousy, racist, sexist, ugly thing that Trump does and says, and you can fundraise and you can fundraise and you can fundraise, and you never have to change one thing that you really do, right? And you personally are going to continue to pay very low taxes from where you’re sitting in the social order. You’re going to continue to enjoy lifestyle in a coastal city, where you are well protected by a well-armed police force that makes sure that you don’t have too many homeless people on the street. How has daily life changed for coastal elites under Trump? Almost not at all.

JS: What are the issues about Sanders that concern you given that he very well may be president, he very well may win. So I’m asking you now to take off the hat of the electoral politics and say if we’re just looking at this as a potential commander in chief president, what concerns you about Bernie Sanders?

NPS: I think the toughest issue that faces an American president is going to be the increasing turn towards nationalism as a organizing idea within international politics and an organizing idea that also relates to how we think about border politics and immigration policy. Because one of the things that Trump clearly has tapped into, and it’s not just Trump, it’s happening all over Europe, and it’s happening in other parts of the world, really is the idea that we’re kind of in a new era of international competition, and even kind of predation in which the role of the nation state is to protect its people. And in that narrative, which is a narrative of trade war, and it’s also a narrative about climate change, this is the environment that we’re in. Very fertile ground for the right. Because the right actually can pivot a little bit left on economics. It can say, we’re going to exact these concessions from corporations, breaking up big tech or, more regulation, things like that. They sound similar, in some ways, to some of the things that someone like Elizabeth Warren is saying, you know, but the nationalist right is moving in this direction.

And the center, the Bloomberg-type figure, they would like to kind of keep this financialized globalization in which Americans increasingly basically just get accustomed to the fact that we’re a poor low wage country on balance, with a kind of wealthy overclass and that this will be this sort of ultimately an arrangement that can work for a long time because it will be leavened with some paternalism and some kinds of you know, give backs to the plebeians. Bernie or any left politician has to try to find something that is different in that framing of the problem. Already that framing suggests the challenge of how do you produce a world in which you start to think about better benefiting your own people but in a context where you are actually trying to produce higher levels of international cooperation and coordination in the interest of trying to address some of these problems that cross borders.

I think that Bernie has the wherewithal to and because he has a background that is in this sort of Democratic socialist tradition, that he’s oriented towards cooperative solutions. I would like to see more thorough conversation and more thorough articulation of you know, what a Bernie Sanders foreign policy would look like. My sense is, it would be more about hemispheric cooperation. It would be more about thinking about the relationship between the migrant emergencies coming from the south and the fact that U.S. policies have really been very destructive for our southern neighbors. It’s a systemic kind of rethinking, but that systemic kind of rethinking is very, very hard to do within the framework of national politics where your argument has to be, I’m going to protect my people first, you know, and that’s what I stand for. You know, not me, us. You know, but when not me, us is a kind of national we, there’s always the sort of danger that the right is going to come along and say, “No, no, no, you don’t really mean that, you know. We’re the ones who really will protect the nation.” And I think one of the real challenges of the Sanders presidency is going to be how do you really deliver on the promise of improving the economic well being of the average American people and use that as a basis on which to build a broader cooperative vision towards the solution of these kinds of global problems and challenges in the coming century? Because if he can’t do that, you know, we’ll just find ourselves back here four years or eight years from now with an even more right-wing American government.

JS: When an individual gets either the Democratic or Republican nomination for president, they receive a very high level classified national security briefing. And lately I’ve been wondering what that briefing would look like with Bernie Sanders. Of he gets the Democratic nomination, it means that Gina Haspel’s CIA is going to have to fly out to where Bernie Sanders is, and get him into a secure facility and attempt to terrify him by inundating him with all of the threats the country is under and we know how Obama responded to it because he unleashed the drone wars and went to JSOC CIA, but I really do, I genuinely don’t have an answer in my head, but I ponder it a lot how Sanders is going to confront the behemoth of the unelected national security bureaucracy that exists primarily to preserve its own existence.

NPS: It’s the blob, and it’s the defense industry and its bloated, never shrinking budget, and it’s a world in which you can always inflate new threats. And it has to be broken. I mean, it’s the empire. It’s the empire that has been, you know, at least three quarters of a century in the making. It’s in serious trouble. It’s not bringing any kind of return to the American people. I think people are sick of it. I think they’re sick of war, and they’re sick of paying for war. I think there’s a real opportunity, but the forces are powerful, you know, and this is much more than the deep state. I mean, this is basically the state. You know, the American state is an imperial warfare state, you know, and it has been for a long time, and it no longer really functions the way it’s supposed to. Because it’s really like, sort of a heavy husk of a kind of security state on a social state that has been shrinking in its capacities. And by a social state, I mean, this part of the state that delivers health, welfare, employment, housing, all the things that people need to live.

So, this heavy husk of the security state on the shrinking social state is not a tenable way to continue as a society, right. And, you know, it goes back to where we started this conversation. New York City in the Bloomberg years became a wonderful gilded city for the very wealthy, even as you have kind of basically, mobile police walls everywhere making sure that the poor denizens know that if they step out of line, they’re going to like have a split lip on the pavement. I mean, you really have to get to the point where you start to have to wonder what kind of state this is now, you know, in which, when I think of national security, like I think of it in these terms as well, the the security ethic that has saturated everyday life, and led us to the point where we’ve kind of neglected these really central aspects of what it means to be a flourishing society. And I’m not sure  if anybody is going to be able to tackle the full scope of this problem, but at least with someone like Bernie Sanders, I think we have somebody who understands the full scope of the problem.

JS: Nikhil Pal Singh, thank you very much for being with us.

NPS: Thank you, Jeremy.

JS: Nikhil Pal Singh is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University, and Founding Faculty Director of the NYU Prison Education Program. His latest book is “Race and America’s Long War” and his forthcoming book is titled “Exceptional Empire: Race, Colonialism and the Origins of U.S. Globalism.”

Attorney Diala Shamas on How Mayor Bloomberg’s NYPD Ran an Expansive Muslim Surveillance Program

MB: New York remains on the frontlines in the War on Terror. I want to thank President Bush for supporting New York city in changing the homeland security funding formula and for leading the global war on terrorism.

JS: That’s Michael Bloomberg speaking at the 2004 Republican National Convention. At the time, under the leadership of Mayor Bloomberg the New York Police Department was running an expansive suspicion-less Muslim surveillance program. 

The NYPD identified 28 so-called “ancestries of interest” and mapped out associated neighborhoods, not just New York City, but also in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. With an almost exclusive focus on the Muslim population in these communities, the NYPD sent undercover officers, called “rakers,” to what they labeled “hot spots” like cafes, hookah bars, book stores, and restaurants. They recruited informants that they referred to as “mosque crawlers” to observe, document, and report on mosques throughout the region. They employed a strategy of “create and capture” in which informants were instructed to spark a conversation about a controversial topic like terrorism and then report the elicited response to the NYPD. The NYPD also stationed officers outside of mosques, taking pictures and videos of people coming and going, and they also tracked individuals.  

My next guest, Diala Shamas, compared the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program to some of the activities of the Stasi — East Germany’s secret police who ran a mass surveillance program that wiretapped and bugged workplaces, public venues, institutions, and encouraged people to spy on their neighbors. 

Shamas co-authored the report Mapping Muslims, which documents the impact the NYPD’s spying program had on American Muslims. Findings of that report include, “surveillance of Muslims’ quotidian activities has created a pervasive climate of fear and suspicion, encroaching upon every aspect of individual and community life. Surveillance has chilled constitutionally protected rights—curtailing religious practice, censoring speech and stunting political organizing.” 

Now at this moment, Mike Bloomberg is buying his way up in national polls, which also thanks in part to DNC rule changes, allowed him to qualify for Wednesday’s Nevada debate. 

So what can we learn from this hallmark program of the Bloomberg administration in New York City? And how would he oversee institutions with even larger surveillance reach if he was elected president? Back in 2014, in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden revelations, Bloomberg said this: 

MB: Look, if you don’t want it to be in the public domain, don’t take that picture, don’t write it down. In this day and age, you’ve got to be pretty naive to believe that the NSA isn’t listening to everything and reading every email. And incidentally, given how dangerous the world is, we should hope they are, because this is really serious, what’s going on in the world. [Applause.]

JS: Joining me now to discuss all of this is Diala Shamas. She’s a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights and previously worked at the CLEAR project. Both organizations have brought legal challenges against the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program. 

Diala, welcome to Intercepted. 

Diala Shamas: Thanks for having me.

JS: So Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, ran three times for mayor as a Republican won those three races, held office from 2002 to 2013. In that time, the NYPD ran this sweeping surveillance program targeting Muslim communities not just in New York, but in areas around the Northeast. When did the Muslim surveillance program begin in New York?

DS: So it basically started right in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. The police department decided to become the leader in counterterrorism efforts and bragged about how it would be the most aggressive local police department in terms of going after alleged terrorists.

Raymond Kelly: Our counterterrorism strategies are multi-layered. And our alliances to defeat terror extend far and wide from the five boroughs of Manhattan to cities around the world.

DS: What that actually looked like, though, was a sprawling surveillance program targeting the city’s Muslim communities and as you noted, beyond New York City, right? They spread out into New Jersey, to Connecticut. I think in some cases, even in Pennsylvania.

JS: Was the program already underway when Bloomberg first won his election and then became mayor in 2002?

DS: The report suggests that it started as early as 2001 but it went on up until 2011. So the bulk of it and its expansion was really under the Bloomberg’s administration and was really one of his sort of hallmark police programs.

JS: The AP did this groundbreaking reporting on the program.

Newscaster: In a 2006 document obtained by the Associated Press, the New York Police Department recommended increased surveillance of thousands of Muslims and their mosques.

JS: And I just want to read part of one of the AP reports: “Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the NYPD has become one of the country’s most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies. A month long investigation by the Associated Press has revealed that the NYPD operates far outside its borders and targets ethnic communities in ways that would run afoul of civil liberties rules if practiced by the federal government, and it does so with a unprecedented help from the CIA, in a partnership that has blurred the bright line between foreign and domestic spying.” Before we get into the CIA relationship, what does it mean that they were surveilling Muslim communities? What kinds of tactics were they using and who were they surveilling?

DS: They were using pretty basic tactics of the sorts that you associate with like the Stasi. They were sending informants and undercover officers into Muslim community spaces, mosques, neighborhoods, cafes, hookah bars, butchers, barber shops, and they called them “rakers” and “mosque crawlers.” And they actually tasked them to listen in on what the community was saying, what the imams were saying during their Friday sermons, what kinds of coffee shop chatter people were engaging in. They compiled these dossiers on the communities, they were neighborhood by neighborhood. One of them was called the Egyptian initiative. One of them was called the Moroccan initiative. So they broke them down by nationality. And were really just about identifying what daily life looks like in those communities and had nothing to do with looking for any kind of criminal activity, terrorist activity, anything of the sorts.

JS: Did they ever produce any evidence to suggest that this program had led to the disruption of any specific terrorist plots?

DS: None whatsoever. In fact, in a testimony that then-Deputy Chief Galati gave in 2012, on the record, he actually said in his six years running or being involved in the demographics unit which was the unit that was tasked with doing all of this work —

JS: It was called the demographics unit?

DS: Indeed, it was called the demographics unit. He said in six years, the demographics unit had not generated a single criminal lead. So with all of those resources, all of that time, nothing was yielded that was actually, had any intelligence value.

JS: I just want to pause for a moment and talk about this demographics unit. What does it even mean that the NYPD had an entity called the demographics unit, like what was the actual purview or purpose of this unit?

DS: It was to engage in this kind of suspicionless surveillance, they had identified 28 “ancestries of interest” that they would monitor. These were all various nationalities, Muslim majority nationalities, plus Black Muslims. The documents were divided by ancestry. There was also the city wide police debriefing unit. And what that unit did was identify names of people who were arrested that sounded Muslim, like Abdullah, Mohammed, something like that, and would go to the precinct where they were being held, and try to turn them to become informants. So if you were arrested on like, say, a marijuana possession charge, the debriefing unit would show up at the precinct and say, “Hey, you know, we can go easy on you if you spy on your Muslim community.” And That’s exactly what happened with, for example, Shamiur Rahman, who came out after this, it happened to him.

Amy Goodman: A 19-year-old man of Bangladeshi descent has admitted he was used as an informant by the New York Police Department to spy on mosques and bait Muslims into saying inflammatory things.

JS: What do we know about the relationship between Bloomberg, the NYPD, and the CIA regarding this program?

DS: I think it all really comes down to overlapping personnel. So they hired ex-CIA, sort of veteran David Cohen.

RK: We became the first police department in the country to develop our own counterterrorism bureau. We restructured our intelligence division and appointed leaders with exceptional credentials to guide our efforts. They include our Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen, the 35-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, who led both the operational and the analytical arms of the agency.

DS: And so when they were setting up this demographics unit and this intelligence division, they turned to a former CIA official, which says a lot about the approach that they were taking to the Muslim community, right? Everything that comes out in these documents really suggests that they’re looking at the Muslim community like a fifth column, they’re enemies from within, they are inherently foreign. They need to be monitored as you would monitor like a counterinsurgency operation. That really militarized approach is reflected at every level. 

So, in 2007, the NYPD published a report called “Radicalization in the West” and it basically laid out the theoretical underpinnings for what the demographics unit was doing. It purported to identify the stages of radicalization that an individual would go through, and purports to help figure out what kinds of behaviors make sense suggests somebody is going from a non-violent, normal person to a potentially radical individual. But if you look at what those markers are, they all map on to basic Muslim religious practice, particularly things that are identified with more conservative kinds of religious practice. Things like giving up smoking, or growing a beard or starting to fast for Ramadan or giving up, at one point I think that’s like “hip hop clothing,” and dressing, you know, with more conservative or traditional Muslim clothing. These rakers, these crawlers, these undercover officers, were really looking for markers of religious identity, like how Muslim are people being? How Muslim are they behaving? What kind of Muslim are they? The more conservative, the more “Salafi,” the more dangerous. That is the logic that they were embracing in this program.

JS: Michael Bloomberg when he defended this program when there started to be more of a focus on it, particularly when the Associated Press kicked off its investigative series, Bloomberg said the following:

MB: Everything the New York City Police Department has done is actually, is legal. It is appropriate. It is constitutional. They are permitted to travel beyond the borders of New York City to investigate cases. They can look at websites. They can watch television to detect unlawful activities or where there might be unlawful activities to get leads. We don’t target individuals based on race or religion.

JS: Your response?

DS: Well, that’s absolutely not borne out by the documents, his own documents. And he also defended the program once those documents came out. I think he said that:

MB: We have to keep this country safe. This is a dangerous place, but make no mistake about it. It’s very cute to go and blame everybody and say we should stay away from anything that smacks of intelligence gathering.

DS: Another example of Bloomberg doubling down on the surveillance program has been recent reporting in the New York Times. That the Center for American Progress has been working on this report on Islamophobia. Bloomberg is a significant donor to the Center for American Progress. And the chapter on the NYPD surveillance program or Muslim surveillance program didn’t make it out in the final published version.

JS: For people that don’t follow this so closely, the Center for American Progress is a think tank in Washington D.C. run by Neera Tanden, very close ally, former staffer for Hillary Clinton and one of the major figures attacking Bernie Sanders regularly and trying to prevent him from getting the Democratic nomination. So what you’re saying is Bloomberg was giving money to the Center for American Progress. At the same time the Center for American Progress was working on this report that would have contained a chapter about the NYPD surveillance of Muslims under Mike Bloomberg. And then when the final report was published, it was excised from the report.

DS: Yeah, I mean, that’s just the most recent example. I remember when the AP published a series of documents around the student surveillance. So Muslim students associations across the city and actually outside the city too were also targeted for surveillance. And you know, they had sent undercover officers on whitewater rafting trips where they were counting how many times the students stopped to pray.

Newscaster: A few years ago, film student Jawad Rasul went on a whitewater rafting trip with the Muslim Student group from his school, the City College of New York. He’s now looking at a secret police file with his name on it. He recently learned an undercover police officer went on the trip.

DS: They were compiling dossiers on what kinds of speakers the students were inviting, noting whether those speakers traveled a lot where they spoke and that level of detail, and Bloomberg said that there is nothing unlawful about that and defended that kind of practice.

JS: What tangible consequences were there for ordinary Muslims, business owners, people who go to their place of worship, community centers — who were the victims here and how were they harmed by it?

DS: I mean, we wrote a whole report on this precise question. Exactly to give lie of this argument that the police department came out with immediately after the public revelations that, you know, spying isn’t really harmful, right? I believe the line was, you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide. And that obviously sounds absurd to anyone who’s followed or who’s read literature of Soviet-era spying. And I remember when I first set out to figure out how are we going to document these kinds of impacts, right, sometimes these like almost intangible impacts, like what does it mean to be chilled to feel like you’re being stigmatized by the police department? Precisely the police department that you’re supposed to call if you’re feeling like you’re in trouble or if you are the victim of domestic abuse or have you know, concerns about your own safety.

And I walked into the Hunter College Muslim Students Association’s room and saw the sign — this was a week or so after the first of this series of documents was released. And there was this big sign in the room that said, please refrain from having political conversations in the MSA room. And it had an arrow pointing to the articles to see why, “look here.” That to me was like a glaring example of the kinds of harms that these sorts of programs have. And you know, it’s not like Muslims in the city were surprised to find out the police department was spying on them. Let’s be clear. When they found out the granularity of it, they were surprised to see their favorite cafes in a police file. But people knew that they were being spied on and the self-censorship and the self-silencing had been going on for a really long time.

So the things that people were telling me were, you know, not wanting to go to the mosque that had been identified as a “hotspot” in a police document anymore, or not trusting their fellow worshippers, not feeling like they could speak with their religious leader or their Imam about questions that they were having. The kinds of ways in which this affects everyday life are in many ways immeasurable. We have some ways of measuring them like drops in attendance or drops in fundraising. And those certainly did happen. But the long term effects of the stigmatization that this kind of practice has, especially when it’s communicated from the highest levels of office, are in many ways yet to really be seen fully.

JS: What do we know about the knowledge that Mike Bloomberg had when he was mayor of the granular details of how this was being run?

DS: Ray Kelly, [who] was his Commissioner was the real head of all of this and [was] somebody who played a major role in not just the suspicionless surveillance program, but also stop and frisk and many of the other hallmark NYPD policies of the Bloomberg era. He’s someone who was very close to Bloomberg. And what we do know is that when the scope of the revelations were published, Bloomberg doubled down and defended those practices. Whether he was in the room, looking at the documents and deciding that do we want to go to that hookah bar and not that cafe like I can’t say, and I doubt it. That’s not how the NYPD operates. But he, full-throatedly embraced the underlying logic.

JS: Going back to Ray Kelly for a moment, he did claim that the NYPD thwarted 14 terrorist plots and here’s what he said:

RK: We follow leads and we’ve had 14 plots against the city that have been thwarted as a result of luck, good work by the federal authorities, good work, partnership with the NYPD. All 14 of those plots of were developed by Muslim extremists.

JS: The investigative news organization ProPublica wrote, “NYPD itself does not appear to have played a major role in breaking up most of the alleged plots on the list. In several cases, it played no role at all.” On his radio program, Bloomberg claimed that Muslims were supportive of the NYPD surveillance program saying:

MB: The Muslim groups that I have talked to in the last few weeks, to say all I think is very close to being accurate, they keep saying look, we don’t want to be out there, you know, getting involved in this. Let’s just keep our heads down, but we do not need another terrorist attack.

JS: So you have Kelly making this claim you have ProPublica, a very reputable news organization, saying they couldn’t find any evidence that this was linked to this program. Then you have Bloomberg out there defending the program and actually weaponizing these anonymous Muslims that he claimed to have talked to that support this program.

DS: Certainly our clients in the Muslim communities that we organize with and work closely with would beg to differ, and did really loudly. And this is one of the silver linings of, I would say, this whole era, which is that it witnessed unprecedented organizing in the Muslim community around questions of police accountability, and the bridging of different movements, right. So at the same time, we were seeing aggressive community challenges to the police department stop-and-frisk practices in the streets through litigation. And you were also seeing that kind of mobilization around Muslim surveillance and coalitions were formed to really kind of tackle these issues together, successfully passing city council legislation, packing the court rooms in each other’s cases when both of these programs were on trial.

On the point about whether or not this kind of practice really resulted in any actionable intelligence, one of the things that stuck out to me from the documents was undercover officers were tasked with doing something called create and capture, which meant, you know, create a conversation about a controversial topic or about jihad or about foreign policy or U.S., you know, targeted killings abroad, and capture people’s responses, which really suggests that, you know, they were out there trying to, if not directly entrap people, they were looking for something that really wasn’t there. And you know, that is out there in the documents for everyone to see.

JS: Talk about some of the legal challenges that were brought against this program and ultimately, why the program was officially disbanded.

DS: The program was disbanded because they were forced to step away from it as a result of all of this organizing as well as litigation that was brought. So immediately, the police department was sued in three different lawsuits, one in New Jersey, two in New York, the Handschu case, which has actually been ongoing for decades, and came out of challenging the police department’s surveillance of anti-war groups and Black activists resulted in a settlement that place some limits on the police department’s ability to gather intelligence around political activities.

And so when the reports came out around the police department spying on Muslims, that ongoing class action was brought back to life with a new motion. So, I would say that it was a political pressure that occurred, in conjunction with litigation, made it so that when there was a new administration, it would be extremely unpopular for them to double down on the litigation posture of the former administration. So de Blasio couldn’t be seen to be taking their loss in the courts, the Supreme Court, and doubling down on the surveillance program and he couldn’t do that because there was such significant organizing and it would just be politically unpalatable.

JS: On the issue of the current presidential race, obviously Mike Bloomberg has now decided he’s a Democrat and is going to run against Donald Trump. This program was disbanded as far as we know in 2014. But in 2015, Donald Trump, then a presidential candidate was on MSNBC on Morning Joe heaping praise on the NYPD surveillance program run by Bloomberg’s administration, and Trump said the following.

Donald J. Trump: Well, you’re gonna have to watch and study the mosques, because a lot of talk is going on at the mosques. And from what I heard in the old days meaning a while ago, we had great surveillance going on in and around mosques in New York City.

JS: Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg, obviously, both oligarchs, both billionaires, although we have some questions about the extent of Trump’s wealth, but these guys you know, want to make it seem like the race is between the two of them. What can we read into what this program would mean for a Bloomberg presidency and how he views, terrorism threats, how he views Muslims, how he views Muslim communities in this country?

DS: I had forgotten about that quote. And it’s stunning because it reminds us as people now I think are more sensitized to the problem of Islamophobia in this country, right, when we had President Trump run on a platform that he’s going to ban Muslims from entering the United States, and we all thought that that was unprecedented. Let’s not forget that the foundations for that kind of public embrace of complete Islamophobia were laid by people like then-Mayor Bloomberg. It was the mainstreaming of this idea that Muslims are second class citizens and Muslims are inherently suspicious, that they are to be viewed as a fifth column, that they are an enemy from within that has led us to the place that we are now.

And so it is a direct through line by the NYPD surveillance program reports like “Radicalization in the West,” “crawlers” and informants in mosques to banning all Muslims from entering the United States. In many ways, communities in New York, immigrant communities, police accountability groups, Black organizations and organizers and activists successfully pushed back on a lot of the police department’s overreach. And that was a victory in many ways. So to see Bloomberg take on this mantle and run as a Democrat is a slap in the face to a lot of that really important organizing that had happened in the city.

JS: Diala Shamas, thank you so much for being with us.

DS: Thank you so much for having me.

JS: Diala Shamas is staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights and previously worked at the CLEAR project. Both of those organizations have brought legal challenges to the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program. You can follow her on Twitter @dialash

[Music interlude.]

And that does it for this week’s show. Be on the lookout on Friday for a special bonus episode of Intercepted focused on Guantanamo, the prison on Guantanamo. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted and on Instagram @interceptedpodcast. If you like what we do on this program, you can support our show by going to TheIntercept.com/join to become a sustaining member. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro, our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

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