Posted by on April 24, 2012 in Blog

Last Friday, several New York news outlets reported that John Brennan, President Obama’s top National Security Advisor, praised NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly for striking an appropriate balance “between our security and our freedoms and our rights as citizens.” These comments engendered a storm of criticism from American Muslim and Arab American groups who contend that such remarks put the White House “seal of approval” on the NYPD's controversial policing and surveillance program. Pulitzer Prize-winning AP reports have revealed that the NYPD has been spying on American Muslims and Arab Americans without criminal predicate.

On Thursday, the Arab American Institute brought over 100 community leaders to the White House for an annual policy briefing, where community members mentioned that the NYPD activities clearly warrant a Department of Justice review. At the briefing, a senior White House official said they were unable to discuss the details of the Administration's opinion on the matter of the NYPD's surveillance program because of an on-going DOJ review. Mr. Brennan’s comments, which came the following day, appear to have directly contradicted what the official at the White House told the community leaders at the briefing. It remains unclear whose comments accurately reflect the views of the Obama Administration.

Mr. Brennan’s office has released a statement that disavows many of the statements attributed to Mr. Brennan by the press. It asserts that Mr. Brennan never made a judgment about the NYPD's actions, but spoke simply about ensuring that law enforcement practices are consistent with the law.

John Brennan met with NYPD Commissioner Kelly and told him we need to be sure we are balancing security and civil rights, Commissioner Kelly agreed and told him he was doing that in NY. John was not rendering any judgment as to whether NYPD’s practices should be the focus of a federal investigation, rather he was stating that everyone in the counterterrorism and law enforcement community must make sure we are doing things consistent with the law. The NYPD has an extremely difficult job in protecting New York City and Commissioner Kelly assured John they were doing it consistent with the law. In combating national security threats we all face, the Muslim community is a part of the solution, not part of the problem.  Federal, state and local law enforcement needs to partner with all of our communities to keep us safe.

Several reputable news outlets, however, have reported that Mr. Brennan overtly praised Commissioner Kelly, and though the recent statement from his office implies otherwise, the office has yet to publicly state this to the media.

With this statement, the community has been yet again forced to accept mixed messages with no clear sense of what the Administration’s view actually is on this matter. Under the past two administrations, countless negative precedents have been set with regards to civil liberties, despite the fact that community members have ostensibly been given “a seat at the table.” In exchange for this Faustian bargain, the community expects to at least be given clear indication of government positioning on these issues, even if the prevailing opinion is a disfavorable one. If the reports misquoted or misinterpreted Mr. Brennan’s comments, then why hasn’t his office issued a public clarification and/or demanded a retraction? Brennan’s press office surely understands the difference between having "full confidence that the NYPD is doing things consistent with the law," and saying that "he was stating that everyone in the counterterrorism and law enforcement community must make sure we are doing things consistent with the law."

Mr. Brennan was asked about his comments in a meeting held on Saturday in New Jersey. That meeting, according Samer Khalaf, an attorney and board member of the Arab American Family Support Center in New York, included a total of four community leaders. “It’s incredible - the runaround we’ve been subjected to over the past couple of days,” Khalaf said. “For senior administration officials to turn on a dime like that and then convene a meeting with only four community members and call it community outreach, regardless of intention, sends the wrong message.” Mr. Khalaf said that the community leaders at the meeting asked about the lack of attendance and that an official from the White House told him that others were invited, but were unable to attend. Linda Sarsour, a New York-based Arab American and American Muslim advocate, said she was “surprised that Mr. Brennan would have a meeting about the NYPD in New Jersey and that those at the forefront of the issue were not at that meeting.” Ms. Sarsour brings up a valid point; why is Mr. Brennan meeting with community leaders in New Jersey and not New York? Khalaf said he received notification the meeting was taking place a day before Brennan’s Friday comments. The New Jersey meeting yielded no further insight into Brennan’s comments and an outstanding question still remains: is there an on-going investigation as many community members were led to believe at the White House briefing? The likely answer is no. It’s clear that this episode will weigh heavily on the community’s mind heading into the November elections. Caught between bigoted policies and confusing or disingenuous outreach, the situation of Arab Americans and American Muslims in the lead-up to this election looks quite grim.


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