The New York Police Department secretly gathered intelligence on more than 250 mosques and student groups in the New York area in one of the nation’s most aggressive domestic surveillance programs since the September 11th terrorist attacks.
A secret squad known as the Demographics Unit sent teams of undercover officers to spy on the area’s Muslim communities. The documents detailing the operations, obtained by the Associated Press, reveal the wide-ranging nature of the surveillance. Lacking any fix on a specific individual or group, the surveillance targeted an entire religious community, often putting huge numbers of innocent people under scrutiny as they engaged in peaceful daily life.
Since 2001, the NYPD’s intelligence agencies and clandestine efforts have received substantial federal money and benefited from an unusually close relationship with the CIA, raising questions about the legality of domestic and foreign intelligence-gathering.
The department identified scores of mosques and social groups for greater spying and surveillance for allegedly financing terrorist groups, holding overly strict religious beliefs, and even for what the documents refer to as “rhetoric.”
Others were targeted for even more mundane associations, like having ties to Al-Azhar, the 1,000-year-old Egyptian mosque, which was one of the first religious institutions to condemn the 2001 terrorist attacks and which have endorsed diplomatic efforts of the Bush and Obama administrations. A restaurant hangout for Muslim communities was also surveilled.
The NYPD program and operations over the last decade are likely to include serious violations of first amendment rights to speech, free exercise of religion and association, and others. No investigations into the sweeping programs are underway.