Civil Liberties & Security at Odds in Surveillance of Muslim Students


When Muslim students at Syracuse University were being watched by the government, the surveillance highlighted the ongoing conflicts between civil liberties and national security.

“Nobody wants to be on anybody’s list,” said Tanweer Haq, the Islamic chaplain at Hendricks Chapel of Syracuse University.

The controversy over surveillance was re-ignited by reports from The Associated Press that the New York Police Department had monitored Muslims in New York City and at some universities including Syracuse.  The police department has justified the surveillance as a tool in tracking terrorist threats. But religious and civil liberties groups say Muslims have been unfairly targeted.

For Chaplain Haq at SU, the surveillance raised two issues: what probable cause did the New York Police Department have for singling out the Muslim Student Association and whether the informants who attended meetings had a court order. “Singling out the Muslim Student Association for surveillance,” said Haq, “they need to explain why they did that.”

At SU, Muslim students have largely been silent about the surveillance. The students he has spoken too, said Haq, expressed “a little bit of fear and confusion and questioned what might be the repercussions of being vocal about their reactions to new of surveillance.”

Student leaders of the Muslim Student Association declined to talk about the surveillance for this story. Instead, they said, they plan to hold a panel discussion later in the spring semester.

The New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has made no statement that the monitoring has ended and maintains that such surveillance is in the best interest for national security, according to news reports.

Syracuse University has denied knowledge of or involvement in the surveillance. “We are a university community that embraces a diversity of opinions, ideals, and viewpoints, along with personal privacy. As such, we do not approve of, or support, any surveillance or investigation of student groups based solely on ethnicity, religion, or political viewpoint,” said Kevin Quinn, spokesperson for SU, in a press release in late February.

Some intelligence professionals familiar with the domestic surveillance have criticized the police department’s program. Michael German, a former FBI agent now working with the American Civil Liberties Union’s policy counsel, called the tactics “ineffective.”

The New York Police Department  “spent significant security resources,” such as the time of officers analysts and supervisors, without much to show for it,  German said in an email interview.

Bill Smullen, director of the National Security Studies program at Syracuse University called the targeted surveillance of one particular group “unwarranted.”  The New  York Police Department “crossed the line” of appropriate tactics, he said.
“I’m not sure they had a plan for what they wanted to do and what they’d do with what they found,” Smullen said. “So let’s hope that all the intelligence agencies that are out there will learn from this and will not continue to do it.”

(M. T. Elliott is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)


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