Democratic hopeful Michael Bloomberg has been accused of lying over the extent of the highly controversial surveillance of Muslims after 9/11, that police were forced to stop following an historical settlement.
In the aftermath of the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, authorities launched a widespread surveillance programme that targeted Muslims in New York City and New Jersey.
It was halted ollowing several lawsuits, and an historic legal settlement in which the nation’s largest police force agreed not to conduct surveillance operations based on religion or ethnicity.
In an interview with PBS, Mr Bloomberg, 78, a billionaire businessman contesting for the Democratic presidential nomination and who served three terms as mayor of New York from 2002 to 2013, he defended his actions.
Asked about the allegedly illegal operation, the extent of which was revealed in a a series of investigative articles published by the Associated Press in 2011, Mr Bloomberg, said: “We sent some officers into some mosques to listen to the sermon that the imam gave. The courts ruled it was exactly within the law and that’s the kind of thing we should be doing.”
He added: “All of the people came from the same place and all that came were from a place they happened to be one religion. And if they’d been another religion, we would’ve done the same thing.
“It does not, incidentally, mean that all Muslims are terrorists or all terrorists are Muslim. But, the people that flew those airplanes came from the Middle East and some of the imams were urging more of the same.”
Activists have denounced the comments of the former mayor, who was recently obliged to apologise for another controversial policing policy – so-called stop and frisk – that he promoted.
“The idea that the NYPD surveilled Muslims in just a few mosques with court approval is a fantasy,” said Farhana Khera, executive director of the group Muslim Advocates.
“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.”
She added: “A federal appeals court, in a unanimous decision, harshly rebuked this programme in a landmark ruling, likening it to the treatment of Jewish-Americans during the “red scare”, African-Americans during the civil rights movement, and Japanese-Americans during World War II.”
Following the series of articles by the AP, activists filed what has come to be known as as Hassan v City of New York, that accused the police department of unconstitutional behaviour. In 2018, the city agreed to stop the programme, pay $75,000 in damages and $1m in legal fees. It also agreed to meet with members of the Muslim community to discuss issues.
The former mayor’s remarks come just a day before the South Carolina primary, where his name is not on the ballot, and Super Tuesday, when people in more than a dozen states will cast their votes.
Nobody from Mr Bloomberg’s campaign immediately responded to enquiries.