NYPD on the hot seat for spying on Muslim groups

Tuesday, 21 February 2012 17:10
securitycamera022012_optBY ADELE SAMMARCO

For many, there are two time periods; life before 911 and life after 911.

For those of us old enough to remember, they are entirely two different worlds.

Heightened alert, intense scrutiny and much trepidation followed in the wake of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center more than a decade ago.

During World War II, that same fear surrounded many Japanese-Americans who were rounded up and put into internment camps.

Fast forward more than a half century later, many Muslim-Americans are feeling a similar pain of scrutiny from law enforcement and government officials in the years since September 11th, 2001.

Now, controversy is brewing around the New York City Police Department, a week after an Associated Press investigation reported the NYPD to be monitoring dozens of Muslim student groups at universities and colleges on the Northeast.

Muslim leaders are calling the surveillance unconstitutional and want the New York Attorney General to investigate reports of secret surveillance of Muslim communities by the New York City Police Department.

The NYPD surveillance was conducted with the help of seasoned CIA officers where intelligence investigators visited websites, blogs and forums of Muslim student associations at the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers University in New Brunswick and 13 other colleges in the Northeast, including Yale in Connecticut.

Yale University President Richard Levin called such surveillance, “antithetical to the values” of Yale and to the country, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Muslim student associations at several New Jersey universities have signed a letter in solidarity protesting the surveillance calling it unwarranted while the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Rutgers University officials have also pushed for an investigation.

Police say they were interested in the Muslim student group at Rutgers as far back as 2009, when undercover NYPD officers had a safe house in an apartment not too far from campus. The operation was uncovered when a building superintendent stumbled upon the safe house and, believing it was a terrorist cell, called a police emergency dispatcher.

Student groups were of particular interest to the NYPD because they attract young Muslim men terrorist groups frequently target to recruit.

Police say they were worried about certain Muslim scholars who influence students and feared extracurricular activities such as paintball outings could be used as terrorist training.

The AP first reported in October the NYPD had placed informants or undercover officers in the Muslim Student Associations at City College, Brooklyn College, Baruch College, Hunter College, City College of New York, Queens College, La Guardia Community College and St. John's University.

A source close to the program, who like others insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it, said the NYPD also had a student informant at Syracuse.

The AP investigation found undercover officers allegedly talked with local authorities about professors in Buffalo and even sent an undercover agent on a whitewater rafting trip, where he recorded students' names and noted in police intelligence files how many times they prayed, according to the Huffington Post.

The New York Police Department defended its surveillance of Muslim student associations in educational institutions hundreds of miles from the city as well as more than 250 mosques in the metropolitan area.

The NYPD says it wanted to get a better handle on what was occurring at the student associations, citing 12 arrests or convictions of people on terrorism charges throughout the United States and abroad who were once members of Muslim student associations.

Both New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg say police follow only legitimate leads about suspected criminal activity.

Several New York Democratic state senators have also called for the state attorney general to investigate the NYPD's spying on Muslim neighborhoods.

Just last month, the CIA announced an inspector general investigation into the agency's partnership with the NYPD.

A small number of Capitol Hill and New York lawmakers have called for greater oversight and controls over the police department's intelligence unit.

There is extensive federal oversight of investigations by the FBI and CIA, however, it is not typically the case with the NYPD's counterterrorism unit.