A report that the New York Police Department runs a team of intelligence officers coached by the CIA and focused on Muslim locals is raising critical ire and questions about whether the program improperly blurs the lines of domestic and foreign intelligence.
The NYPD has been dispatching undercover officers called "rakers," into minority neighborhoods to monitor daily life in bookstores, bars and other local common places, reported The Associated Press, citing a "months-long" investigation. Informants called "mosque crawlers," monitored sermons and imams. Intelligence officers reportedly also gathered information on cab drivers and food cart vendors.
The CIA has direct involvement with the NYPD intelligence unit, training at least one police detective at its CIA training headquarters, and has been "instrumental" in forming and training the unit, the AP reported. The CIA cannot spy on domestically on Americans.
The AP also reported that the NYPD operates far outside its borders in New Jersey and surrounding regions and targets ethnic communities, mainly Muslims, in specific ways that no federal agency could without violating civil liberty laws.
Many of the 40 current and former NYPD officers and federal officials "directly involved in planning and carrying out these secret operations" interviewed AP remained anonymous.
Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, there has been debate on the government's role in surveillance and spying domestically. The Patriot Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush, was recently extended in May for another four years by President Obama.
Units of the Council on American-Islamic Relations decried the program as reported by the AP.
CAIR of New York and New Jersey today called on the Department of Justice to open an investigation into the NYPD concerning the matter. CAIR also wanted an investigation into the amount of taxpayer dollars going toward the intelligence department of the NYPD.
James Yee, executive director for CAIR New Jersey, said the group was shocked to learn that the NYPD had crossed New Jersey borders for surveillance on the Muslim community.
"We in New Jersey are feeling the shock of this one," Yee said. "No doubt we in New Jersey are extremely concerned, especially because Muslims in New Jersey may be afraid just to go to the Islamic Center."
CAIR staff attorney Gadeir Abbas said the report revealed many violations of Muslim-Americans' basic rights of privacy.
"Based on this report, we have much reason to believe the NYPD is violating the first amendment rights of Muslim-Americans in the New York region," Abbas said. "We have adequate concern that the CIA is violating the executive order that Ronald Regan issued in 1981 that restricts the CIA from spying on domestic persons."
NYPD Responds to AP Report
However, NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne called the AP report "a piece driven by anonymous NYPD critics."
He said terrorism remains a real threat in New York.
"We commit over 1,000 officers to the fight every day to stop terrorists who've demonstrated an undiminished appetite to come back and kill more New Yorkers," Browne said. "We don't apologize for it and we're not deterred by petit jealousies that success sometimes breeds."
The NYPD follows leads as a basis for investigation or arrest, Browne said.
The NYPD cited seven terrorist plots that were thwarted by intelligence provided by the NYPD intelligence unit -- including a 2004 plot in which two men were arrested for planning to plant explosives at the Herald Square subway station. The NYPD said it used an informant and undercover officer to gain the trust of the two men, who were charged and convicted with conspiring to set off a bomb.
Amid the criticism of CAIR and other New Yorkers concerned the NYPD is overstepping its jurisdiction and duties, the NYPD said safety is its primary concern, but it is not breaking the law.
"We're going to do all we reasonably can to keep New York safe," Browne said. "We do so in partnership with the FBI and other federal agencies, and we uphold the Constitution in doing so."