“Of course we’re supposed to do that,” Michael Bloomberg tells PBS Newshour host Judy Woodruff, but it’s an open guess how many Democrats will agree. In the years after 9/11, Bloomberg ordered the surveillance of Islamic mosques in New York City and shared the intel it generated with federal and local authorities in the region. Woodruff argues that no arrests ever came from the program, which got halted in a 2014 legal settlement, to which Bloomberg declares, “Good,” and also argues that his mayoral administration was “super careful to always obey the law.”
Would Bloomberg order the same kind of surveillance after a similar terror attack as president? Bloomberg doesn’t exactly go the full Jack Nicholson, but still manages to leave the solid impression that you need him on that wall, you want him on that wall:
Michael Bloomberg: Number one, remember, you’re talking about right after 9/11, when everybody was petrified about another terrorist attack. We were super careful to always obey the law. Number one, it was the right thing to do, and, number two, you knew people would be looking at it. We went — 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. I don’t remember the rafting trip story whatsoever, but I do remember that. And we were very careful. And the authorities that looked at us said, yes, you complied with the law. But we had every intention of going every place we could legally to get as much information to protect this country. We had just lost 3,000 people at 9/11. Of course we’re supposed to do that.
Judy Woodruff: Do you think it was necessary to single out Muslim Americans that way? And would you do that as president?
Michael Bloomberg: Whether — whether or not we looked elsewhere, there were lots of places we looked. We have an intelligence department in the police department, which is, I think, one of the finest in the world. I assume it still is. I have been away from it now for three, four years. But we put an enormous amount of work into — and coordinating with federal intelligence agencies and state intelligence agencies to try to keep this country safe. And there’s no question about where the people who committed the terrible atrocities of the three airplane crashes and all the people getting killed, where they came from. And it’s a natural place to go, yes. But, remember, I was the one that defended building a mosque in New York City, which I got a lot of grief for, but I’m a believer in freedom of religion. And we certainly continue to this day, I assume, to keep our eyes and ears open and look wherever you can legally to make sure nothing that like this is going to happen again. These are lives we’re talking about.
Judy Woodruff: One other thing I want to ask you about, but just to clarify quickly on that, you’re saying it’s OK to target Muslim Americans, as a religion?
Michael Bloomberg: No, it’s OK to go where you think there might be information that would be useful in keeping us safe. And there were imams who publicly at that time were urging the terrorism. And, so of course that’s where you’re going to go.
Judy Woodruff: Last thing I want to ask you about, the…
Michael Bloomberg: It doesn’t, incidentally, mean that all Muslims are terrorists or all terrorists are Muslim. But there was — the people that flew those airplanes came from the Middle East. And some of the imams were urging more of the same. And so, of course, we sent the police officers in. And we were so super careful, because you knew people would look at it, and I didn’t want anybody to think we’re targeting an ethnicity. We were just targeting a group where it’s more likely, if you — we went to listen to the imams who reputedly were stirring things up. That’s what you — that’s what intelligence is all about. You have to keep the — you have to step back, Judy, and understand we had 3,000 people killed in one — a few minutes.
Judy Woodruff: But it wasn’t a religion that killed them.
Michael Bloomberg: No, but 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 had been another religion, we would have done the same thing.
Is that true? Probably, but that would be difficult to prove. The FBI does domestic counter-terrorism surveillance on violent white supremacists that likely includes surveillance on their churches, around which some of those groups organize. That wouldn’t be on the same scale as what Bloomberg did in NYC after 9/11, but let’s not forget that it wasn’t just 9/11 either. The 1993 attack on the World Trade Center was locally organized and carried out, led by the radical imam Omar Abdel-Rahman, the “Blind Sheikh” who put together the plot through people radicalized at three mosques where Abdel-Rahman preached about war against the West. That was probably more the reason for the NYPD surveillance, but 9/11 would have ramped up the impetus exponentially.
Unlike some of the issues Bloomberg has, this one is probably a wash in a general election. He and Donald Trump would try to outmuscle each other on this issue at every turn, but Bloomberg’s big problem with this is the Democratic primaries and his opponents in them. Which of these candidates will stand up to defend the surveillance program? Exactly zero of them. They are already calling Bloomberg an oligarch for buying his way into the process and an authoritarian over stop-and-frisk policies; they might think they can have a feast on this interview.
If so, though, Bloomberg appears ready to fight on this issue. Note that he doesn’t sound at all regretful about it, unlike the stop-and-frisk issue, for which he has now repeatedly apologized. It’s tough to predict how this will play with voters, even in a primary. Have we gotten far enough past 9/11 to where this looks entirely like bigotry, or was 9/11 traumatic enough for most Americans to recall that this seemed like a pretty good idea at the time? In a general election, the Jack Nicholson routine might play well — and it’s not at all a certainty that it won’t in the Democratic primaries, either. The other candidates on the ballot might want to be veeerrrrry careful about making this a campaign issue.