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updated 10/6/2011 6:17:49 PM ET 2011-10-06T22:17:49

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly faced pointed questions Thursday about police surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods as the City Council discussed whether it needed more oversight of a department that has become one of the most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies in the U.S.

Kelly's testimony before a legislative committee and a packed room of onlookers was the first time he has been extensively questioned since The Associated Press disclosed in August that police had scrutinized Muslim communities, often not because of accusations of wrongdoing but because of residents' ethnicity. The department has sent plainclothes officers to eavesdrop in those communities, helping police build databases of where Muslims shop, eat, work and pray.

Documents obtained by the AP, for example, revealed an effort known as the Moroccan Initiative, a program that cataloged every aspect of life in Moroccan communities. Officers photographed businesses and noted the ethnicity of the owners and, in some cases, whether they served a Muslim clientele.

Kelly defended the department he transformed in the wake of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"We’ll continue to train, recruit and closely supervise undercover officers in order to infiltrate a terrorist cell before it has a chance to reach maturity and kill New Yorkers," Kelly said. "In conducting these sensitive operations, we adhere to a set of guidelines issued by a federal judge.

"By operating within the framework of the modified consent decree, we ensure that our investigations comport with the U.S. Constitution."

He said community mapping programs were essential for police to identify imminent threats.

"Establishing this kind of geographically based knowledge of the city's communities saves precious time in deterring fast-moving plots," he said.

He said those programs were lawful and said they did not constitute racial or ethnic profiling.

Asked whether the NYPD conducted similar mapping of Irish communities, Kelly replied: "We don't do it ethnically. We do it geographically."

The council controls the police budget and has the authority to scrutinize police programs. But since 9/11, it has done little to oversee the police department as its intelligence apparatus grew.

Peter Vallone, the committee chairman, has said Kelly privately informed him about some of the NYPD's tactics, but Vallone said they are too sensitive to be discussed at council meetings. After Thursday's hearing, he said nobody in city government is likely qualified to oversight such an expert intelligence operation but said some further oversight is likely needed, perhaps from a federal source.

"That portion of the police department's work should probably be looked at by a federal monitor," he said.

In Congress, lawmakers have said they don't believe they have oversight over the NYPD, either. Before Thursday's hearing, some council members called for greater control.

"There's got to be a balance between law enforcement and oversight," said Brad Lander, a Brooklyn councilman.

Lawmakers in Washington and New York have also requested investigations by the U.S. Justice Department and New York attorney general.

Kelly said the department's internal reviews were enough to ensure that civil liberties were protected.

"The value we place on privacy rights and other constitutional protections is part of what motivates the work of counterterrorism," he said. "It would be counterproductive in the extreme if we violated those freedoms in the course of our work to defend New York."

Documents show that the department investigated hundreds of mosques and Muslim student groups, often relying on undercover officers and informants. Even Muslim leaders who worked with the police and stood shoulder to shoulder with Mayor Michael Bloomberg were put under surveillance.

The department also maintained a list of 28 countries that, along with "American Black Muslim," it described as "ancestries of interest." Documents obtained by the AP show that a secret team known as the Demographics Unit dispatched plainclothes officers known as "rakers" into Muslim businesses to pose as customers and write daily reports on what they saw.

The NYPD originally denied the Demographics Unit ever existed, but Kelly said Thursday that it disbanded in recent years and was folded into a squad known as the Zone Assessment Unit.

"I'm concerned about the allegations which have been raised about the NYPD, in layman's terms, stepping on the civil rights of people with your surveillance," said Robert Jackson, the only Muslim member of the council.

"We simply follow leads," Kelly said. "Those leads may take us into religious institutions. We're not going to be deterred, but we're certainly not singling out any particular group."

Jackson asked Kelly whether police had put him under surveillance and Kelly said he did not believe so. Jackson's name was not among the documents obtained by the AP. As an American black Muslim, however, he could be considered "of interest."

Kelly would not say after the hearing whether police still considered that an ancestry of interest.

Kelly said police do not dispatch undercover officers without an indication of possible criminal activity.

That does not apply to the rakers, whom the department distinguishes as plainclothes officers, not undercover officers.

Many of these programs were built as part of an unprecedented relationship with the CIA. A senior agency officer was the architect of these programs while on the CIA's payroll. The CIA trained an NYPD detective in espionage tactics at its spy school.

Recently, the CIA sent one of its most senior clandestine officers to work out of NYPD headquarters. The CIA's inspector general is now investigating whether that relationship was improper. The U.S. director of national intelligence, James Clapper, recently told Congress that it did not look good for the CIA to be involved in any city police department.

Kelly cautioned lawmakers, "I wouldn't believe everything that I read."

When asked after the hearing if he could say specifically what has been reported incorrectly, he replied, "No."

NBC New York's Jonathan Dienst contributed to this story from The Associated Press.

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