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NYC mayoral debate includes heated discussion over Muslim surveillance

The final mayoral debate, attended by Mayor Bill

The final mayoral debate, attended by Mayor Bill de Blasio, Nicole Malliotakis and Bo Dietl, was held on Nov. 1, 2017. Photo Credit: POOL / Jefferson Siegel

Mayor Bill de Blasio and his Republican challenger, Nicole Malliotakis, declined on Wednesday to consider resuscitating a Bloomberg-era Muslim surveillance program in the aftermath of Tuesday’s deadly truck attack by a man who allegedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

Facing off in a final debate before the Nov. 7 election, both candidates disavowed the NYPD’s decadelong program, begun secretively soon after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But Malliotakis took a broader view of when surveillance would be appropriate, which de Blasio seemed to categorically rule out bringing back in any form.

“The surveillance program of the past failed because it alienated our police from the very people we needed information from, and it violated people’s rights. We can do better,” said de Blasio, whose NYPD ended the program in 2014.

While distancing herself from the Bloomberg program, Malliotakis, a state assemblywoman from Staten Island, appeared to leave wiggle room to expand what the NYPD is allowed to do in its efforts to detect and prevent terrorism.

“I think it’s very important the we not limit them in their ability when they get a lead,” she said of the NYPD, but, she added: “We’re not going to be targeting any particular group or any particular type of religion.”

In asking about the surveillance program, moderator Maurice DuBois of WCBS-TV noted that a Paterson, New Jersey, mosque — Masjid Omar — that the attacker may have attended had been one of the mosques once targeted by the NYPD’s program.

A federal judge has criticized the program, calling a settlement to end it having failed to guard the rights of “law-abiding Muslims and believers in Islam who live, move and have their being in this city.”

Bo Dietl, the flamboyant former NYPD detective and reality TV star who is running as an independent, said: “Surveillance? Yes.”

“As far as this profiling thing, worrying about it, well just look at this terrorist? What did he look like? Did he look like the terrorist?” Dietl said. “If you looked in the dictionary with that beard, the way he had. This is something we have to get past. Political correctness cannot be there all the time.”

The Bloomberg administration vigorously defended the program as essential to preventing attacks and disputed claims that it violated the rights of targets. Former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who was in office from 2002 until 2013, could not be immediately reached for comment.

Malliotakis said she supports “preventive measures that are being utilized in other parts of the world,” but she did not elaborate.

For about a decade after the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD under Bloomberg got help from the CIA to target Muslim neighborhoods in the city’s five boroughs and the region. Mosques were branded potential terrorist organizations, which subject them to added scrutiny. Sermons were recorded and congregations watched without charges being filed. The NYPD built dossiers on Muslim neighborhoods. Muslims who seem to have changed their names for religious reasons were targeted.

Under de Blasio and his first police commissioner, Bill Bratton, the program was ended and the unit performing the surveillance disbanded.

The first part of Wednesday’s hourlong debate, held at the City University of New York Graduate Center, focused on Tuesday’s truck attack in lower Manhattan, which killed eight people and injured about a dozen more.

According to the U.S. government and NYPD, the attacker, Sayfullo Saipov, drew inspiration from the Islamic State’s online propaganda video, pledged loyalty to the organization and shouted, “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” during the attack.

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