As NYPD officers staked out an Afghan restaurant in Huntington that appeared to be on the up-and-up, the police officers charged with spying on the eatery apparently didn’t find anything incriminating to report.

So with nothing nefarious afoot, they settled on the most trivial of observations.

“A medium sized Afghani restaurant.”

“This restaurant has twelve tables and seating for 40-50 customers.”

“This location has belly dancing on the weekends.”

To anyone fond of ethnic cuisine and an ancient form of belly gyrations, such a discovery would be welcomed. The NYPD, however, was not interested in the mundane lives of Muslim Americans who emigrated to the US to earn a living, raise a family.

After the Sept, 11, 2001 attacks, the NYPD created a massive surveillance operation—aided by at least one CIA operative—directed at Muslims. It led the police department entrusted with policing the five boroughs to stretch its increasingly growing intelligence apparatus to Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut and even parts of Pennsylvania.

As part of its strategy, the department dropped a dragnet on Muslim-owned businesses, mosques, and collegiate student associations. The program, and the unit that enforced the measures, which has since been disbanded, was a localized version of the Bush administration’s war on terror. The entire operation was a secret until the Associated Press exposed the program in a series of stories that eventually earned the wire service a Pulitzer Prize.

Despite the police department’s efforts, the chief of the NYPD Intelligence Division admitted under oath in 2012 that the program failed to generate even one lead.

That program, however, did have a lasting effect. For some Muslim communities, it sowed distrust in the very people who pledged to protect them.

Muslim surveillance “created a pervasive climate of fear and suspicion, encroaching upon every aspect of individual and community life,” the CUNY School of Law reported in 2013 after conducting a trove of interviews.

Rep. Peter King. (Christopher Twarowski/Long Island Press)
Rep. Peter King. (Christopher Twarowski/Long Island Press)

The NYPD observed the goings on around small shops, occasionally reporting “nothing of interest was observed.”

It listened in on conversations and sermons inside mosques, took photo and video surveillance of targeted locations, oversaw a roster of informants, placed the names of law-abiding Americans into an intelligence database and spied on Muslim Student Associations at local colleges.

“Surveillance has chilled constitutionally protected rights—curtailing religious practice , censoring speech and stunting political organizing,” CUNY School of Law added in its report.

A conversation an undercover officer had with the son of a shop owner in Patchogue offered no justification for their efforts.

“Most of his customers are Pakistani and few are Indian,” the son said of his dad’s business. “We cater mostly to the Pakistani community because there are more of them in this area. We ship products directly from Pakistan. I also sell calling cards at a discounted rate.”

Two years after the NYPD disbanded the unit that carried out a mission that has been called unconstitutional and discriminatory by rights groups, Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) proposed the federal government create a similar program during a meeting Thursday with President-elect Donald Trump.

“They were very effective for stopping terrorism,” King told reporters after his meeting with the incoming president. “And they should be a model for the country.”

King’s comments set off a rapid response from the American Civil Liberties Union, which Tweeted: “This would be unconstitutional and we would sue.”

The ACLU is currently in settlement negotiations with New York City over the police department’s surveillance operation.

In January, the police department agreed to increased oversight of counterterrorism investigations. Under the agreement, the city would appoint a civilian representative who would monitor investigations and report any violations. The proposed settlement, which must be approved by the court, also stipulated that authorization for operations using undercover officers or confidential informants could only originate from a high-ranking police official.

The settlement is an extension of the decades-old Handschu Guidelines, which prohibits the police department from conducting religious or politically-motivated investigations. After 9/11, however, the NYPD won approval from a court to modify the long-standing class action lawsuit, which was originally brought in 1971. The opposing sides are back at the negotiating table after a federal judge in October rejected the settlement, saying the agreed upon protections did not go far enough.

The NYPD’s controversial surveillance measures are also the subject of a separate lawsuit brought by New Jersey residents. That case is still pending after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reinstated the lawsuit following a lower court’s dismissal. The plaintiffs in that case argue Muslims were the focus of covert operations “solely because they are Muslim or believed to be Muslim.”

Responding to the city’s argument that plaintiffs did not suffer any injuries from the operation because it has not “overtly condemned the Muslim religion,” the court said: “This argument does not stand the test of time.”

“Our Nation’s history teaches the uncomfortable lesson that those not on discrimination’s receiving end can all too easily gloss over the ‘badge of inferiority’ inflicted by unequal treatment itself,” the court said. “Closing our eyes to the real and ascertainable harms of discrimination inevitably leads to morning-after regret.”

Muslim Americans often cringe at the suggestion of further government surveillance.

Dr. Mamoon Iqbal, board member at Masjid Noor in Huntington, said he’s disturbed that “Muslim Americans’ value” is judged “solely as a national security asset, which its not. We have more to bring to the table than the eyes and ears of homeland security.”

As for King’s comments, Iqbal brushed them off as “political.”

“I think it’s really unfortunate because Peter King in the past used to be a good friend to the Muslims,” he said, in particular citing the congressman’s visit to a Bay Shore mosque.

King lost favor with many Muslims on Long Island following his so-called “Muslim radicalization” hearings in Washington, D.C., which began in 2011. At the time, King had served as chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

The hearings ignited several protests with various rights groups and Muslim advocates labeling the hearings inappropriate. King was undeterred.

“To back down would be a craven surrender to political correctness and an abdication of what I believe to be the main responsibility of this committee—to protect America from a terrorist attack.”

In an interview with the Press looking back at the hearings last year, King said, “I raised issues that had to be raised.”

King is among the critics unimpressed with President Barack Obama’s refusal to refer terrorists as “radical Islamist terrorists.” Obama, and President George W. Bush before him, believed identifying Muslims radicalized by a perverted interpretation of the religion would provide more ammunition to terrorists who recruit people based on claims that the West is at war with Islam.

Trump voiced similar criticisms during the presidential election—one of the most controversial and incendiary in modern US history.

The president-elect was accused during his campaign in trafficking in racism and Islamophobia after suggesting all non-US Muslims be banned from entering the country.

Trump himself has not commented on King’s proposal, but he may be amenable to policies directed at the Muslim American community if some ideas he broached during the campaign are any indication, such as instituting a Muslim registry or database and enforcing surveillance of mosques.

Muslim advocacy groups have already reacted to potential policies targeting their community after an advisor to Trump’s transition team bumbled his paperwork after leaving a meeting with the president-elect. Listed as one of his top immigration policies: “update and reintroduce the NSEERS screening and tracking system.”

The document was referring to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System instituted by the Bush administration to track immigrants from mostly Muslim countries. The program was considered a failure.

Muslim Americans and their supporters demonstrated outside the White House to this week to demand Obama rescind NSEERS’ legal basis.

NSEERS, like the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims, did not generate a single terror-related case. The Department of Homeland Security later did away with it, but the Obama administration never gutted its regulatory framework, leaving concern among rights groups that Trump may reinstate the program. That and utilizing the full weight of federal law enforcement to spy on Muslims will likely contribute to the angst many Muslim Americans continue to feel after the election of Trump as president.

“It’s kind of disturbing,” Iqbal from Masjid Noor in Huntington said. “But at the same time, we’re going to weather through this. There is some cautious optimism in the sense that we know we’re not alone, we have people that support us.”

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Rashed Mian has been covering local news for the Long Island Press since 2011. He graduated from Hofstra University in 2010 where he studied print journalism. Rashed, the staff's multimedia reporter, covers daily news for the web, shoots/edits feature videos and writes about civil liberties. He loves Afghan food and sports. Rashed is also a caffeine freak. Email: rmian@longislandpress.com. Twitter: rashedmian