Newark mayor seeks probe of NYPD Muslim spying

February 23, 2012 - 3:36 AM
NYPD Intelligence

FILE - This Jan. 18, 2012 file photo shows Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy speaking at a news conference in Chicago. According to a report obtained by the Associated Press, in mid-2007, Americans living and working in New Jersey's largest city were subjected to surveillance as part of the New York Police Department's effort to build databases of where Muslims work, shop and pray. The operation was carried out in collaboration with the Newark Police Department, where McCarthy was chief at the time. It cited no evidence of crimes. It was just a guide to Newark's Muslims. The operation in Newark was so secretive even the city's mayor says he was kept in the dark. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The mayor of New Jersey's largest city called for state authorities Wednesday to investigate a widespread spying operation conducted in Newark's Muslim neighborhoods by the New York Police Department that he characterized as "deeply offensive."

At about the same time Newark Mayor Cory Booker made his remarks, Gov. Chris Christie, once New Jersey's top federal law enforcement official, called the surveillance "disturbing" and said Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa was already looking into the reports.

In mid-2007, the NYPD's secretive Demographics Unit fanned out across Newark, photographing every mosque and eavesdropping in Muslim businesses. The findings were cataloged in a 60-page report, obtained by The Associated Press, that served as a police guidebook to Newark's Muslims. There was no mention of terrorism or any criminal wrongdoing.

Officials reacted strongly on Wednesday. Booker and Newark's current and former police directors said they were misled by the NYPD, which they said asked a limited number of questions but didn't hint at the depth or breadth of the planned investigation.

"If anyone in my police department had known this was a blanket investigation of individuals based on nothing but their religion, that strikes at the core of our beliefs and my beliefs very personally, and it would have merited a far sterner response," Booker told The AP.

Newark Police Director Samuel DeMaio, who was deputy chief of the department at the time, said the NYPD asked to be shown around the city. New York police said it was part of an investigation but never revealed what it was about, DeMaio said.

"We really want to be clear: This type of activity is not what the Newark PD would ever do," he said.

Garry McCarthy, who was Newark's police director in 2007 and is now Chicago's police superintendent, told The AP that Newark officers were "absolutely not" involved in the operation.

"The bottom line is that the NYPD reached out to us as a courtesy when they were coming into Newark," he said. "We did not conduct surveillance or gather intelligence with the NYPD."

Newark authorities who investigated how the NYPD operation was carried out concluded McCarthy received the 60-page report from the NYPD, according to a Newark official. The official, who insisted on anonymity because the inquiry was ongoing, said there was no evidence that McCarthy circulated the report to anyone else.

Such surveillance has become common in New York City in the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Nearly 3,000 Americans died when al-Qaida terrorists hijacked airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon near Washington and a field where one crashed in Pennsylvania.

Police have built databases showing where Muslims live, where they buy groceries, what Internet cafes they use and where they watch sports. Dozens of mosques and student groups have been infiltrated, and police have built detailed profiles of local ethnic groups, from Moroccans to Egyptians to Albanians.

But the NYPD's intelligence unit also operates far outside its jurisdiction and has worked to keep tabs on Muslims across the Northeast. The department has cataloged Muslim communities in Long Island, conducted undercover operations in New Brunswick, N.J., and has turned often innocuous Internet postings by Muslim student groups into police files.

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne did not respond to a message seeking comment on the Newark effort Wednesday. He has previously denied the existence of the Demographics Unit.

At a news conference discussing his budget Wednesday, Christie, New Jersey's U.S. Attorney in 2007, said he didn't remember the NYPD ever approaching him about surveillance in Newark or a threat that would justify it.

"The NYPD has at times developed a reputation of asking forgiveness rather than permission," he said.

The documents obtained by the AP show, for the first time in any detail, how the NYPD's intelligence-gathering efforts stretched outside the department's jurisdiction. New Jersey and Long Island residents had no reason to suspect the NYPD was watching them. And the department is not accountable to their votes or tax dollars.

NYPD conducted similar operations in Suffolk and Nassau counties on suburban Long Island, according to police records. The NYPD frequently operates outside its jurisdiction without telling federal or local officials.

The report left Newark Muslims grasping for explanations as they saw pictures of their mosques and businesses in police files.

"All of these are innocent people," Nagiba el-Sioufi of Newark said recently while her husband, Mohammed, flipped through the NYPD report.

Egyptian immigrants and American citizens, the couple raised two daughters in the United States. Mohammed works as an accountant and is vice president of the Islamic Culture Center, a mosque a few blocks from Newark City Hall.

"If you have an accusation on us, then spend the money on doing this to us," Nagiba said. "But you have no accusation."

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Online:

Read the documents:

Newark, N.J.: http://apne.ws/wBk7Hg

Nassau County: http://apne.ws/xhHxNx

Suffolk County: http://apne.ws/zmCvMU

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Associated Press writers Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman contributed to this report. Angela Delli Santi contributed from Palisades Park.

Contact the AP's Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations (at) ap.org Follow Apuzzo and Goldman at http://twitter.com/mattapuzzo and http://twitter.com/goldmandc