Though presidential candidate Mitt Romney criticized President Obama (falsely) for being insufficiently supportive of free speech rights during attacks on American diplomats in Egypt and Libya, Romney himself has ran into trouble on related issues before. In 2005, while governor of Massachusetts, Romney called for the warrantless wiretapping of Massachusetts mosques in order to identify terrorism suspects. Speaking to the Heritage Foundation, a right wing think-tank in Washington, D.C., Romney proposed a wide-ranging surveillance program that encompassed both mosques and foreign students from “terrorist-sponsored states”:
How many [students] are coming to our state and going to those institutions who have come from terrorist-sponsored states? Do we know where they are? Are we tracking them? …How about people who are in settings — mosques, for instance — that may be teaching doctrines of hate and terror. Are we monitoring that? Are we wiretapping? Are we following what’s going on?
Because Romney was selling his idea as a means of identifying places from which extremist doctrines are disseminated rather than keeping track of individuals already under suspicion, it would seem to imply that police should be bugging mosques that aren’t already known to house radicals. Without prior suspicion of a crime leaves open the possibility that the type of monitoring Romney proposed would have been warrantless. Romney attempted to downplay this possibility in a subsequent interview, telling Fox News’s John Gibson that he supported devoting more resources to practices already in use rather than developing new surveillance techniques and that FBI wiretapping of mosques currently required probable cause.
Regardless, Romney walked back his proposal after it caused an uproar among Massachusetts Muslims and civil libertarians at the time, who believed the proposal was discriminatory and violated Muslim-Americans’ right to freely practice their religion.
Authorities that followed Romney’s prescribed course failed dismally. Earlier this year, the Associated Press ran a Pulitzer-Prize winning series about a massive, secret spying operation conducted by the New York Police Department (with CIA assistance) against local Muslims. Among other tactics, the NYPD spied on local mosques without warrants or probable cause. The NYPD generated no actionable leads, harmed real counterterrorism intelligence-gathering efforts, and prompted a Justice Department review over potential civil rights violations by the NYPD.