He responded dishonestly.
When Pearson pressed him further on the surveillance, Bloomberg said the police “only went in when the mosque or the imam asked … period. End of story.”
Facts First: Mosques and other Islamic organizations were surveilled without being asked or notified during the Bloomberg mayoralty that began in 2002, including with secret informants and undercover officers. Muslim leaders in New York City and in New Jersey, where the NYPD also conducted surveillance, say Bloomberg’s claim that the police went into mosques only when invited in is categorically false. Adam Goldman, a journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize as part of an Associated Press team that exposed the surveillance program, says the same.
“That statement is totally false. The NYPD surveillance of the Muslim community was warrantless and it was covert in nature,” said Imam Al-Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid of New York’s Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood, who is a former president of the Islamic Leadership Council of New York.
“The statement that the former mayor is making is completely untrue,” said Imam W. Deen Shareef, convener of the Council of Imams in New Jersey. “None of the mosques and none of the organizations, for that matter — none of the schools that were placed under the surveillance — were contacted, and none of the leaders within the Muslim community here in New Jersey had any knowledge whatsoever of the New York Police Department having any interest in looking for or investigating or questioning anyone about whatever it is they were looking for.”
Bloomberg’s campaign did not respond to requests for an explanation of his remarks. The NYPD declined to comment.
An extensive surveillance program
Bloomberg’s claim “is so plainly, demonstrably untrue that it would be almost laughable had it not been for the devastating effects that unwarranted NYPD surveillance had on American Muslim communities in New York City and beyond,” said Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York who directs the CLEAR (Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility) project that represented the plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits against the surveillance program.
It is possible that Bloomberg, who took office about three-and-a-half months after 9/11, was referring to occasions on which police leaders and officers were invited into mosques for meetings or gatherings. Before the Associated Press broke the news about the surveillance program in 2011, “imams and mosques throughout the city were really very open and welcoming to NYPD,” said Abdur-Rashid.
But Bloomberg had been asked specifically about surveillance. Though loud music was playing in the background as he spoke with Pearson at the opening of a campaign office in Milwaukee, he made clear that he heard that this is what she was talking about.
Pearson said her exchange with Bloomberg took place on December 21, 2019. She said she tweeted the two video clips of the exchange last Wednesday because of a hashtag that has been circulating, #AskBloomberg, which encouraged the moderators at Bloomberg’s first Democratic debate to ask him tough questions.
“I had held back because I didn’t want my questioning of his record to be viewed as something I was doing simply because I support another candidate,” she said.
Surveillance beyond mosques
It is possible that there is a case in which an imam did make some sort of private request to the NYPD. But Bloomberg’s suggestion that surveillance happened exclusively with the permission of imams is clearly inaccurate.
Bloomberg’s campaign did not respond when asked if he would apologize or has any regrets over the program.