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Muslim leaders condemn NYPD’s surveillance operation

This news story was published on February 25, 2012.
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By Hannan Adely, Patricia Alex and Nick Clunn, The Record (Hackensack N.J.) –

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Muslim leaders condemned the New York Police Department’s broad surveillance of their communities and institutions at a news conference in Newark on Friday morning, and later at a prayer service in Paterson — two cities where spying took place.

“It’s a complete betrayal of our community. As Americans, we have to look over our shoulders,” Nadia Kahf, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said at the news conference. “Rather than alienating us again, we need to work together.”

The criticisms added to a growing chorus that includes state and local officials and civil liberties groups who have criticized the NYPD’s spying operation as improper and unauthorized. But across the Hudson, Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered a strong defense of the Police Department operation during his weekly radio program, saying the NYPD acted within its legal rights to keep terrorism at bay.

The NYPD spied on and collected information about mosques, restaurants and worshipers in Muslim communities including Newark, according to reports and police documents obtained by The Associated Press. They also focused on the Omar Mosque in Paterson and kept track of Muslim students at Rutgers University.

Muslim leaders said the NYPD operations lacked probable cause and hinted at a possible civil rights lawsuit during the news conference.

“The safety of our county comes first, but not at the sacrifice of our civil liberties,” said Mohamed El Filali, outreach director for the Islamic Center of Passaic County in Paterson.

Kahf, a lawyer and mother of a Rutgers student, said officers weren’t chasing leads but spying on the basis of religion. She said New Jersey mosques actively cooperated with law enforcement in the wake of 9/11.

As part of the surveillance, the NYPD monitored student websites at Yale University, Rutgers, the University of Pennsylvania and 13 other Northeast colleges, according to the AP reports. Police did surveillance on students and professors, and infiltrated elements of campus life to gather intelligence on Muslims.

Mohamed Gadalla, a junior in Rutgers’ pre-med program, said news about the surveillance campaign “scares a lot of people.”

“To know that we were being spied on just because we’re Muslim is outrageous and unfair,” said Gadalla, of Franklin Lakes.

Meanwhile, defenders of NYPD tactics noted that a key coordinator of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center spent time organizing the plot in Newark. Two hijackers aboard planes that crashed into the Pentagon lived for two months in a rented apartment in Paterson.

NYPD officers also monitored Muslims at the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick. Lt. J.T. Miller, a spokesman for the New Brunswick police, said: “We’re not going to comment on any investigation by the NYPD or the CIA.” Jim Cahill, New Brunswick’s mayor, did not return several calls for comment.

Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger criticized the Police Department’s tactics in a letter sent to the Columbia community Friday, saying it had a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech. Yale President Richard C. Levin has also condemned the police surveillance. In a statement released Monday, Rutgers officials said the university “does not condone the surveillance of any members of our community based on their race, gender, ethnicity or religious beliefs.”

At the Omar Mosque in Paterson, spokesman Mahmoud Attallah said revelations the mosque was a target of the NYPD unfairly mar the reputation of a religious community that has tried since the 9/11 attacks to show that it opposes terrorism and extremism.

Attallah said it was “heartbreaking” for congregants to know the process for rebuilding trust with non-Muslims will have to start anew. “We are good people,” Attallah said. “Our children go to public school. They pledge allegiance to the American flag.”

An elderly worshiper who identified himself as Palestinian said he feels proud of the United States when he can receive treatment from a doctor without having to pay him a bribe, which apparently was the case in his homeland. He was among hundreds of Muslims who attended regularly scheduled afternoon prayer services at Omar Mosque on Friday. Muslims from other mosques also attended in a show of support and a rebuke to religious profiling.

Mosque leaders learned only last week that undercover police officers had the mosque under surveillance when a reporter from The Associated Press, which broke the story, presented them with an NYPD report, Attallah said. The brief report — containing two aerial photos, a map and four sentences of text — did not indicate that any criminal activity had ever taken place there, or that the surveillance team was looking for anyone in particular.

Attallah said the NYPD should tell the mosque whether the surveillance program yielded any useful information or led to any arrests.

New York City police officials and the mayor have said the NYPD acted legally when it collected information on Muslims and Muslim institutions that weren’t linked to any criminal activity.

“Everything the New York City Police Department has done is legal, it is appropriate, and it is constitutional,” Bloomberg said Friday.

The mayor also denied allegations of racial, or religious, profiling.

“We don’t target individuals based on race or religion. We follow leads and we are consistent with the guidelines resulting from the Handschu federal court decision,” he said, referring to a 1985 court decision that limited how the NYPD could monitor citizens.

The Handschu case arose from years of NYPD spying on political activist groups. In the settlement, the police agreed only to conduct investigations of political activity if they have information that unlawful activity may take place. The rules barred police from collecting information purely based on religion or political leanings, but those rules were relaxed in 2003 in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Bloomberg said the city wasn’t going to let its guard down as it did after the World Trade Center garage bombing in 1993. He said the NYPD had helped prevent 14 terrorist plots to attack subways, bridges and synagogues in the past decade.

“We cannot slack in our vigilance,” the mayor said. “The threat was real. The threat is real. The threat is not going away.”

He also pointed to the ties that some of the 9/11 hijackers had to New Jersey, including the fact that ringleader Mohammed Atta held meetings in Newark to coordinate and plan the attacks.

“You’ve got to remember,” Bloomberg said. “An awful lot of the 9/11 hijackers stayed in New Jersey for an extended period of time training and planning their attacks.”

Bloomberg wouldn’t say directly if the surveillance — which police documents indicate happened in the mid-2000s, was still occurring.

He responded only: “We have not let our guards down. We take the threats of today just as seriously as the threats of Sept. 12, 2001.”

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One Response to Muslim leaders condemn NYPD’s surveillance operation

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    Real Classy here... Reply Report comment

    February 26, 2012 at 10:51 am

    It’s called protecting our country. Those that don’t like it, can go to any other country they choose. Amen!