NEW YORK (AP) — Facing tough questioning from city officials about police surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Thursday that his officers were not ethnic profiling and that the department's oversight protected civil liberties.
Kelly's testimony before the City Council was his first appearance since an Associated Press investigation revealed that police scrutinized Muslim neighborhoods, often not because of any accusation 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.
Kelly said his officers were only following leads. Asked if police have similarly examined the Irish community, Kelly replied: "We don't do it ethnically, we do it geographically."
Documents obtained by the AP revealed an extensive effort to catalog every aspect of life of inside the Moroccan enclave including restaurants, cafes, barber shops and gyms. The idea was to build a database that would help officers locate would-be terrorists trying to blend in to society. Documents indicate plans to build similar databases for other ethnicities.
"I am concerned that the revelations in the AP story simply don't square with the assertion that the NYPD only follows leads," said Brand Lander, a Brooklyn councilman who has called for greater oversight of the department.
The council controls the police budget and has the authority scrutinize police programs. But since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the council has done little to oversee the department as it became one of the nation's most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies.
Before Thursday's hearing of the Public Safety Committee, members of the council joined civil rights groups at a news conference calling for tighter controls over the department.
Lawmakers in Washington and New York state have also called for investigations by the U.S. Justice Department and state attorney general.
"There's got to be a balance between law enforcement and oversight," Lander said.
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.
Documents show 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 against terrorism were put under surveillance.
The department maintained a list of 28 countries that, along with "American Black Muslim," it labeled "ancestries of interest." Documents obtained by the AP show a secret team known as the Demographics Unit was dispatched into Muslim neighborhoods to eavesdrop in businesses and write daily reports on what they saw.
"Was I under surveillance?" asked Robert Jackson, the only Muslim member of the council, said before the hearing.
Many of these programs were 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 investigating whether that relationship was improper.
"It's my own personal view that that's not a good optic, to have CIA involved in any city-level police department," James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, told Congress recently.