White House helps pay for NYPD Muslim surveillance

February 27, 2012 - 5:47 PM
NYPD Intelligence

FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2012 file photo, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly speaks at the New York Police Department in New York. Millions of dollars in White House money has helped pay for New York Police Department programs that put entire American Muslim neighborhoods under surveillance. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration said Monday it has no control over how the New York Police Department spends millions of dollars in White House grants that helped pay for NYPD programs that put entire American Muslim neighborhoods under surveillance. In New York, the police commissioner said he wouldn't apologize.

The White House has no opinion about how the grant money was spent, spokesman Jay Carney said. The Associated Press reported Monday that the White House money has paid for the cars that plainclothes NYPD officers used to conduct surveillance on Muslim neighborhoods and paid for computers that stored even innocuous information about Muslim college students, mosque sermons and social events.

The money is part of a little-known grant intended to help law enforcement fight drug crimes. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush and Obama administrations have provided $135 million to the New York and New Jersey region through the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, known as HIDTA. It's unclear exactly how much was spent on surveillance of Muslims because the HIDTA program has little oversight.

The AP confirmed the use of White House money through secret police documents and interviews with current and former city and federal officials. The AP also obtained electronic documents with digital signatures indicating they were created and saved on HIDTA computers. The HIDTA grant program is overseen by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Carney said the White House drug policy office has no authority to direct, manage or supervise any law enforcement operations, including the NYPD's surveillance of Muslims.

"This is not an administration program or a White House program," Carney said. "This is the New York Police Department."

The disclosure that the White House is at least partially paying for the NYPD's surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods complicates its efforts to stay out of the fray over the controversial counterterrorism programs. Carney described the Office of National Drug Control Policy as a policy office, but he did not say whether the White House sees the NYPD's programs as good policy.

In New York, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was again unapologetic. Kelly said that some local politicians who questioned the NYPD's methods were pandering to voters in upcoming elections, and said that others — including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez and Newark Mayor Cory Booker — were wrong to question the department.

"Not everybody is going to be happy with everything the police department does, that's the nature of our business," Kelly said. "But our primary mission, our primary goal is to keep this city safe, to save lives. That's what we're engaged in doing."

The Obama administration has pointedly refused to endorse or repudiate the NYPD programs it helps pay for. It remains unclear whether the White House knew how the NYPD was spending the grant money until the AP asked the White House about it last week.

"We make very clear that we consider Muslim Americans partners in the effort to combat, you know, radical extremism," Carney said Monday. "I think we've made that clear again and again. And that continues to be our position."

John Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, last year called the NYPD's efforts "heroic" but would not elaborate. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, whose department also gives grant money to the NYPD and is one of the lead federal agencies helping police build relationships with Muslims, has refused in recent months to discuss the police tactics. Tom Perez, the Justice Department's top civil rights lawyer, has repeatedly refused to answer questions about the NYPD.

New York's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, does not have the authority to investigate the NYPD, Schneiderman's spokesman said. The New York City council has also said it neither has the oversight authority nor expertise to investigate NYPD's counterterrorism programs.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union on Monday called for a federal investigation into the White House funds paying for some of the NYPD's counterterrorism activities. So far, the federal government has not decided to investigate the NYPD, despite multiple requests to do so.

Kelly acknowledged Monday that the department uses HIDTA money but would not say how it spends the money.

The White House HIDTA grant program was established at the height of the drug war to help police fight drug gangs and unravel supply routes. It has provided about $2.3 billion to local authorities in the past decade.

After the terror attacks, law enforcement was allowed to use some of that money to fight terrorism. It's unclear how much HIDTA money has been used to pay for the intelligence division, in part because NYPD intelligence operations receive scant oversight in New York.

Congress, which approves the money for the program, is not provided with a detailed breakdown of activities. None of the NYPD's clandestine programs is cited in the New York-New Jersey region's annual reports to Congress between 2006 and 2010. And Congress has not requested that its investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, look into the HIDTA grant program since 2005.

Most of the money from the White House grants in New York and New Jersey has been spent fighting drugs, said Chauncey Parker, director of the program there. He said less than $1.3 million was spent on vehicles used by the NYPD intelligence unit.

"Those cars are used to collect and analyze counterterrorism information with the goal of preventing a terrorist attack in New York City or anywhere else," Parker said. "If it's been used for specific counterterrorism effort, then it's been used to pay for those cars."

Former police officials told the AP those vehicles have been used to photograph mosques and record the license plates of worshippers.

In addition to paying for the cars, the White House money pays for part of the office space the intelligence division shares with other agencies in Manhattan.

When police compiled lists of Muslims who took new, Americanized names, they kept those records on HIDTA computer servers. That was ongoing as recently as October, city officials said.

Many NYPD intelligence officers, including those that conducted surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods, had HIDTA email addresses. Briefing documents for Kelly, the police commissioner, were compiled on HIDTA computers. Those documents described what police informants were hearing inside mosques and which academic conferences Muslim scholars attended.

When police wanted to pay a confidential informant, they were told to sign onto the HIDTA website to file the paperwork, according to a 2007 internal document obtained by the AP.

Parker said the White House grant money was never used to pay any of the NYPD intelligence division's confidential informants. The HIDTA computer systems, he said, are platforms that allow different law enforcement agencies to share information and work.

"I am shocked to hear that federal dollars may have helped finance the NYPD's misguided efforts to spy on Muslims in America," said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., one of 34 members of Congress who have asked the Justice Department and House Judiciary Committee to investigate the NYPD.

Nermeen Arastu, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the White House needs to put its money where its mouth is. She said if the White House promotes outreach to Muslims inside the U.S. and around the world, "why fund a program that basically destroys trust?"

Arastu's organization has filed freedom of information requests at the local and federal level to see how the NYPD's counterterrorism programs are being funded.

The connection between NYPD and the White House anti-drug grant program surfaced years ago, during a long-running civil rights lawsuit against police. Civil rights attorneys asked in court about a "demonstration debriefing form" that police used whenever they arrested people for civil disobedience. The form carried the seal of both the NYPD Intelligence Division and HIDTA.

A city lawyer downplayed any connection. She said the NYPD and HIDTA not only shared office space, they also shared office supplies like paper. The NYPD form with the seal of a White House anti-drug program was "a recycled piece of paper that got picked up and modified," attorney Gail Donoghue told a federal judge in 2003.

The issue died in court and was never pursued further.

Last week, the controversy over NYPD's programs drew one former Obama administration official into the discussion.

After the AP revealed an extensive program to monitor Muslims in Newark, N.J., police there denied knowing anything about it. The Newark police director at the time, Garry McCarthy, has since moved on to lead Chicago's police department where President Barack Obama's first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is now the mayor.

"We don't do that in Chicago and we're not going to do that," Emanuel said last week.

Christie, the New Jersey governor, said the NYPD surveillance in his state was "disturbing" and has asked the attorney general to investigate. Christie was New Jersey's top federal prosecutor and sat on the HIDTA executive board during 2006 and 2007 when the NYPD was conducting surveillance in New Jersey cities. Christie said he didn't know that, in 2007, the NYPD catalogued every mosque and Muslim business in Newark, the state's largest city.

"I kind of think I would have remembered that," he said on Fox Business Network last week.

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Associated Press writers Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman and Chris Hawley contributed to this report.

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