A new report has brought the New York Police Department under increasing scrutiny for a terrorism-surveillance program that critics say illegally profiles Muslims and has even extended its operations into other states.
The secret report, obtained by the Associated Press and released Friday, adds to longstanding concerns about the NYPD’s Demographics Unit. It shows that the unit collected huge amounts of information on the region’s Muslim-American community – ranging from conversations in Muslim-owned shops to the license-plate numbers of those attending mosque – even if there was no link to criminal activity.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly have attributed the absence of terror attacks since 2001 to the program’s success. The commissioner has also argued that the intelligence gathering is no different than what the NYPD would do for other groups.
But the scope of the intelligence gathering chronicled in the report is leading to renewed calls for a federal investigation.
“It is no longer a question that the NYPD is engaged in widespread racial profiling,” says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “NYPD documents state that they are spying on Muslims solely because they are Muslims.”
An AP review of the report states that plainclothes police officers assigned to investigate the city’s Syrian community “photographed businesses and eavesdropped at lunch counters and inside grocery stores and pastry shops,” even though many of the targets were second- and third-generation US citizens and there was no threat being investigated.
The report also states that no Jews were monitored, despite the fact the area under surveillance was heavily Jewish. Coptic Christians, also prevalent in the area, were similarly excluded.
“We are deeply concerned about the broad campaign of surveillance of everything Muslim that seems to be the policy of the NYPD,” says Donna Lieberman, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). “It’s crass religious profiling and bad policing because it squanders resources and alienates communities.” [Editor's note: The original version misstated Ms. Lieberman's name.]
In the past, Commissioner Kelly has said that the department’s surveillance of Muslims was nothing out of the ordinary. “In fact, the police department uses many of the same methods to find and stop terrorists that we use to arrest drug dealers, human traffickers, and gang leaders,” he said during a speech at Fordham University Law School on March 3. “We develop detailed information about the nature of the crime and the people involved. We form partnerships with other government agencies, find sources, and make use of undercover officers.”
But aspects of the program have caught the attention of US Attorney General Eric Holder.
The AP has previously reported that in 2007 the NYPD obtained information about Muslims in Newark, N.J. Both Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have said that they were not aware of the operation.
In congressional testimony Thursday, Attorney General Holder expressed concern about the reports.
"We are in the process of reviewing the letters that have come in expressing concerns about those matters," said Holder. "At least what I've read publicly, and again, just what I've read in the newspapers, is disturbing.”
The NYCLU argues that the surveillance of Muslims violates the Handschu Decree, a set of federal guidelines that put restrictions on police surveillance. The debate centers on whether the NYPD was allowed to collect data.
The NYCLU suggests that, although the police are allowed to go anywhere where the public goes, they are not allowed to maintain dossiers.
In the Fordham speech, Kelly countered that the NYPD is “authorized to visit any place and attend any event that is open to the public” and “to conduct online search activity and to access online sites and forums on the same terms … as members of the public” and “prepare general reports and assessments … for purposes of strategic or operational planning.”
In August, Mayor Bloomberg said that the NYPD did not do surveillance based on religion.
"If there are threats or leads to follow, then the NYPD’s job is to do it. The law is pretty clear about what’s the requirement, and I think they follow the law," Bloomberg said at an Aug. 25 news conference. "We don’t stop to think about the religion. We stop to think about the threats and focus our efforts there."
But Muslim groups dispute this.
“We joke that every other person at a mosque is an informant,” says Mr. Hooper of CAIR. “The basic assumption is that there will be informants and agent provocateurs at mosques and Muslims events.”
Noting complaints from all over the country, Hooper says: “New York is just the tip of the iceberg.”