Image: Muslims rally to protest surveillance
Bebeto Matthews  /  AP
Opposition by Muslims to the New York Police Department's surveillance strategy included this protest in Foley Square last Nov. 18.
By
updated 6/6/2012 11:01:16 AM ET 2012-06-06T15:01:16

Eight Muslims filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday in New Jersey to force the New York Police Department to end its surveillance and other intelligence-gathering practices targeting Muslims in the years after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The lawsuit alleged that the police activities were unconstitutional because they focused on people's religion, national origin and race.

It is the first lawsuit to directly challenge the NYPD's surveillance programs, which were the subject of an investigative series by The Associated Press since last year. Based on internal NYPD reports and interviews with officials involved in the programs, the AP reported that the NYPD conducted wholesale surveillance of entire Muslim neighborhoods, chronicling daily life including where people ate, prayed and got their hair cut. Police infiltrated dozens of mosques and Muslim student groups and investigated hundreds more.

Syed Farhaj Hassan, one of the plaintiffs, stopped attending one mosque as often after he learned it was one of four where he worships that were included in NYPD files. Those mosques were located along the East Coast from central Connecticut to the Philadelphia suburbs, but none was linked to terrorism, either publicly or in the confidential NYPD documents.

Hassan, an Army reservist from a small town outside of New Brunswick, N.J., said he was concerned that anything linking his life to potential terrorism would hurt his military security clearance.

"Guilt by association was forced on me," Hassan said.

The NYPD did not respond to questions about the lawsuit but noted the New Jersey attorney general determined last month that NYPD activities in New Jersey were legal.

NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly has said his department is obligated to do this type of surveillance in order to protect New York from another 9/11. Kelly has said the 2001 attacks proved that New Yorkers could not rely solely on the federal government for protection, and the NYPD needed to enhance its efforts.

Hassan said he served in Iraq in 2003 to stop the atrocities of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's secret police.

"I didn't know they had one across the Hudson," he said, referring to the NYPD intelligence division.

California-based Muslim Advocates, a civil rights organization that meets regularly with representatives of the Obama administration, is representing the plaintiffs in the case for free.

"The NYPD program is founded upon a false and constitutionally impermissible premise: that Muslim religious identity is a legitimate criterion for selection of law-enforcement surveillance targets," the lawsuit said.

New Jersey lawmakers were outraged earlier this year when they learned of the surveillance. But after a three-month review, the state's attorney general found that the NYPD did not violate any state laws when it spied on Muslim neighborhoods and organizations. The attorney general found no recourse for the state of New Jersey to stop the NYPD from infiltrating Muslim student groups, video-taping mosque-goers or collecting their license plate numbers as they prayed.

No court has ruled that the NYPD programs were illegal. But the division operates without significant oversight: The New York City Council does not believe it has the expertise to oversee the intelligence division, and Congress believes the NYPD is not part of its jurisdiction even though the police department receives billions in federal funding each year.

Members of Congress and civil rights groups have urged the Justice Department to investigate the NYPD's practices. A Justice Department spokeswoman said they are still reviewing the requests. Federal investigations into police departments typically focus on police abuse or racial profiling in arrests. Since 9/11, the Justice Department has never publicly investigated a police department for its surveillance in national security investigations.

Because of widespread civil rights abuses during the 1950s and 1960s, the NYPD has been limited by a court order in what intelligence it can gather on innocent people. Lawyers in that case have questioned whether the post-9/11 spying violates that order. The lawsuit filed Wednesday is a separate legal challenge.

The NYPD and New York officials have said the surveillance programs violated no one's constitutional rights, and the NYPD is allowed to travel anywhere to collect information. Officials have said NYPD lawyers closely review the intelligence division's programs.

"The constitutional violation that the NYPD did commit was blanket surveillance of a group based on religion," said Glenn Katon, Muslim Advocates' legal director. He said a program that treats people differently based on religion, national origin or race is subject to the Constitution. "That's the crux of our claim," he said.

A George Washington University law professor, Jonathan Turley, said it would be a challenge to convince the government that the NYPD's practices were illegal because the courts and Congress have allowed more and more surveillance in the years since 9/11. But, he said, most of these questions have been handled in policy debates and not in the court systems.

Nineteen-year-old Moiz Mohammed, a sophomore at Rutgers University, said he was moved to join the lawsuit after reading reports that the NYPD had conducted surveillance of Muslim student groups at colleges across the Northeast, including his own. He said the revelations had made him nervous to pray in public or engage in lively debates with fellow students — a practice he said he once most enjoyed about the college atmosphere.

"It's such an unfair thing going on: Here I am, I am an American citizen, I was born here, I am law abiding, I volunteer in my community, I have dialogues and good relationships with Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and the NYPD here is surveilling people like me?"

"We feel as though it was a violation of our constitutional and our civil and our human rights," said Abdul Kareem Muhammad, one of the plaintiff's in the case. Muhammad is the imam of the Newark mosque, Masjid al-Haqq. That mosque was listed and pictured in a September 2007 NYPD report on Newark.

"We have a very strong objection to that," Muhammad said. "We condemn and denounce every form of terrorism."

Muhammad said he and other Muslim community leaders have not been given assurances that the NYPD is no longer conducting surveillance on their communities.

"That's become very disturbing, too," Muhammad said. "There's a possibility that this is still going on."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: AP report: NYPD targeting ethnic communities

  1. Closed captioning of: AP report: NYPD targeting ethnic communities

    >>> former governor howard dean , former d.c. mayor adrian fenty all back with us at the table. in the ten years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks the new york city police department has turned into one of the nation's most aggressive and sophisticated domestic intelligence agencies . the associated press is out just this morning with a monthlong investigation into the nypd 's intel division , exploring its methods and the controversies surrounding it, joining is matt acuso, thanks for being with us.

    >> thanks for having me.

    >> nypd changed the way it did business after the attacks on september 11th . what did you find?

    >> it not only changed the way it did business, it created a very deep connection with the cia . they started to -- the nypd started to build these intelligence programs that really infiltrated muslim communities in ways that if the federal government did it would totally go against rules that have been set up to protect civil liberties and they did it with this unusual partnership with the cia . a very senior cia officer was dispatched by cia director george tenet to be his personal representative to the nypd and really helped create these intelligence -gathering programs, directed the intelligence gathering , supervised the intelligence gathering and that's relationship that continues today. recently the cia sent one of its most senior undercover officers to work out of one police plaza in new york as a covert officer.

    >> so, we're talking about former cia agents now working within the new york police department , traveling --

    >> they're current cia officers.

    >> on the cia payroll, working with the new york police department , traveling abroad and using intelligence to work in conjunction with the nypd . we should point out the new york police department has put out a statement saying the new york police department is doing everything it can to assure that there's not another 9/11 here and more innocent new yorkers are killed by terrorists. we have nothing to apologize for in that regard. that from nypd spokesman paul broune. what's the biggest complaint with this program that you found in your investigation?

    >> one of the things that is little known that they do, they have this program called the demographics program. it was described to us by officers involved as they were mapping the human terrain of the city. they were putting undercover officers, ethnic officers, inside middle eastern neighborhoods of stocity and their job is to hang out and blend in and look for things that are suspicion. and that could be something as simple as who is looking at radical books in a bookstore and who is looking at al jazeera and applaud about a report about an ied in iraq and that could be enough to get you in a report at the nypd , they also have informants that they call mosque crawlers who as the name suggest just go to the mosques and are eyes and ears for the nypd inside mosques. the fbi puts informants in mosques but there's a bar that says there has to be specific information related to criminal activity and that bar isn't there at the nypd , the nypd said it just follows leads, but we've talked to a number of people involved in the mosque crawler program who say we just have them there as our eyes and ears.

    >> how does the nypd get away with that, then, if they don't have the legal right to do it as you suggest, how are they getting away with it?

    >> so, there's the federal laws that the federal government has to apply and then, you know, obviously nypd is subject to city and state laws. but what's really interesting here while, you know, the real question of the past decade at the federal level has been do we have to give up civil liberties in the name of security and that debate has kind of focused on the fbi and the cia , warrantless wiretapping that sort of thing. there hasn't been that kind of debate in new york . there isn't the level of oversight on the nypd 's intelligence division that there is in washington on, say, the cia or fbi . you know, the -- the tactics that they use don't get the kind of scrutiny by the city council , and the federal government has given the nypd about $1.6 billion since 9/11, but there's very little federal oversight when it comes to what exactly the nypd is doing as far as intelligence gathering .

    >> katty kay ?

    >> during your reporting, did you come across any officers within the nypd who had qualms about the legality of this? ever since 9/11 there has been a trend here for people to be prepared to give up civil liberties in the name of security, but i was just wondering whether you met people, you know, who knew about the program, within the police force who said we're not quite sure if this is really what we're meant to be doing?

    >> there were. it was interesting, there were people who said they felt uncomfortable, but those people didn't tend to be in the -- in the inner circle , the people who were directly involved in these programs. i mean, there's a close hold sort of a shudder of secrecy around a lot of what happens. the people who were directly involved, and we talked to a number of them, said almost to a person, look, we need to -- we need to be doing this. i mean, we have to be out in the muslim community because that's where the -- that's the community that is, you know, that's sending terrorists to attack us. and they compared it to, like, well, we would map drug dealing . we would map murders. the difference is in this instance you're not mapping crimes, you're mapping people. and that's -- that's the difference here. is they're saying it's no different than we would go to where the robberies are, we'd put undercovers there, here they're just saying we're going where the muslims are.

    >> are there any court cases pending on this issue? you would think somebody would complain that this is a violation of at least the fourth amendment and who knows what else.

    >> it's interesting because there is a lawsuit, a federal lawsuit, related to the nypd intelligence division intilltration of anti-war groups ahead of the republican national convention in new york . but what's unique about this, in order to bring a lawsuit about this, you have to kind of know about it. you have to know that you were -- you were surveilled. and if you don't know, then it's kind of hard to bring standing. i mean, in a lot of ways as we were doing this reporting, i kept going back to the nsa wiretapping program and the people who said, well, i'm going to sue about this, and the government says, you can't sue because you don't know if you were wiretapped, and we can't tell you if you were wiretapped because that would, you know, jeopardize national security .

    >> are these people being wiretapped? is that one of the things they're doing routinely?

    >> we don't have any information about any sort of wiretapping, you know, blanket wiretapping programs. but we know the nypd did push years ago to try to get fisa authority which was, you know, seen at the justice department as a real -- a real grab to try to have the ability to do wiretapping. you know, that was unsuccessful, but we didn't uncover any information about that.

    >> adrian fenty , as mayor of washington , d.c. , another city that, of course, was attacked on september 11th , anything similar to this within the washington police department?

    >> you know, we have a much smaller police department . 50,000 here in new york , 4,000 down in d.c. but d.c. absolutely has the counterintelligence units, but there's also the federal government in d.c. , so the fbi and homeland security is in d.c. and in the d.c. region is doing probably a lot of the new york that this new york police department unit does up here. from what i understand about it, it's essential, because the only way that you're going to know about communication around the new york region and what's happening overseas is to be in and around it, and the federal government doesn't have the resources. so, you got to give bloomberg and his team a lot of credit for setting this up, for being so aggressive. from what i understand, the federal government really relies on the nypd to bring back intelligence . one thing was interesting was how many threats come against new york and washington , d.c. my police chief down in d.c. was briefed daily on threats, and they had to follow them and track them to make sure that they didn't escalate into something.

    >> and, matt, how much of this is done because the people of new york city say do what you have to do to prevent another terrorist attack ? i mean, you said sanchez, larry sanchez, went in front of the federal government , he was up on capitol hill and said we've been given the public tolerance and the luxury to be very aggressive on this topic. they're going to keep going until they're told otherwise, aren't they?

    >> absolutely. and i think -- i think everybody acknowledges new york is different. and what, you know, mayor fenty said is absolutely right, i mean, nobody else has the -- nobody else has the resources. no other police department has the resources to do what the nypd is doing. i mean, i think the question is if this is a model for policing and counterterrorism, well, new york isn't the only -- isn't the only threat in the country. why aren't other police departments doing this? and what we've seen is there are instances where police departments have said, no, we don't want to do that. i mean, you know, in new york one of the things they did -- first things they did was said, you know, run me a report of all the pakistani cabdrivers so they could look for people who maybe got their taxi shields fraudulently so that they can maybe turn them into -- use that as leverage to turn them into an inform amendment. in cambridge, massachusetts, the police chief told us, yeah, we got a very similar request from boston pd for a list of all our somali cabdrivers and we said, no way, we don't do that, unless you have a specific criminal investigation or a cause. and in los angeles , you know, bill bratton , the police commissioner out there, i mean, just got skewered in 2007 for saying i would like to map my muslim community just so i know where this is. and civil rights groups just, you know, just hit the roof. so, i think, look, i think new york is unique. i think they do have a unique background given the -- given 9/11. they certainly have a deep relationship with the cia . the cia trained a police detective at the farm, you know, which is -- i mean, that's an unprecedented thing. so, it's -- they have that. they have 9/11. they have a lot of money. they have a low crime rate . these sorts of things are uniquely new york .

    >> matt, were there any instances you were given where the demographics unit, where the intelligence that are gathered have actually prevented some sort of terrorist attack ? a specific example of where it had worked?

    >> well, we know that the intelligence division has had successes. you know, the herald square plot ahead of the republican convention is a perfect example. it didn't show the depth of the program, but, i mean, they used an undercover officer living in brooklyn and hanging out and they used an informant who before he was involved in this investigation had been basically a mosque crawler. so, they prevented a -- they prevented a terrorist attack on the subway. they got convictions. i mean, there was also an instance where they were able to -- the intelligence division undercover operating in new jersey was key to -- to arresting two people who were on their way to somalia to train for -- for terrorism. so, i mean, no question the intelligence division has had successes and has disrupted -- disrupted plots. i mean, what we were trying to do is say, look, let's have the discussion. let's -- let's be able to have the discussion about what the -- if there are trade-offs for that security, what are they. because i think that discussion has happened in washington , d.c. , on federal programs, but it hasn't happened in new york .

    >> you know, a lot of this is going to be -- depend on the success or failure of this and the backlash if there is some, is going to depend on how the people in power use the authority. the reason the constitutional prohibited -- prohibitions exist and this is on the margins of that is so the government doesn't abuse its power in dealing -- in using this for political reasons, and if they never do that, then this is probably going to fly, i guess. and if they start using it for political reasons, then there will be a problem. but i think this is going to be -- this program is going to be widely supported by the american people and certainly even by many muslim-americans. as long as the government doesn't use it to oppress muslims as a group, most muslim americans don't want muslim terrorists either in the united states .

    >> but, i mean, doesn't that raise the question if that's the case, why don't we give the fbi this authority? why do we specifically say the fbi can't do this? i mean, the fbi certainly has its own checkered history with surveillance programs.

    >> exactly, they have their own checkered history.

    >> so does the nypd , in the '60s and '70s they were using the precursor of the intelligence division to spy a anti-war groups. it's a discussion that's been had at the federal level , it's not a discussion that's been had at the local level. and this -- the -- making the -- you know, making the wall more porous between what the cia can do overseas and domestically is a big aspect here, because if it is something we want from the cia , then why is it just happening in new york ? i mean, why don't we put -- why doesn't the cia direct the intelligence gathering of every police department ?

    >> i think it's a really important debate because we have a checkered past of using this information for political reasons as j. edgar hoover did and nixon did as president and others.

    >> matt apuzzo, thank you so much. it's a well-researched piece. people can read it at the associated press and draw their own conclusions. thanks a lot.

    >> thanks a lot for having

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