WASHINGTON (AP) — Months after receiving complaints that the New York Police Department's is using surveillance tactics on entire American Muslim neighborhoods, the Justice Department is just beginning a review to decide whether to investigate civil rights violations.
Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress the status of the review Tuesday.
The announcement bothered some Democrats, who said they were under the impression the Justice Department had been reviewing the matter since last late last year.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press show that the NYPD has built databases pinpointing where Muslims live, where they buy groceries, what Internet cafes they use and where they watch sports.
Dozens of mosques and student groups have been infiltrated, and police have built detailed profiles of Moroccans, Egyptians, Albanians and other local ethnic groups. The NYPD surveillance extended outside New York City to neighboring New Jersey and Long Island and colleges across the Northeast.
Holder told Congress that police seeking to monitor activities by citizens "should only do so when there is a basis to believe that something inappropriate is occurring or potentially could occur."
Holder responded under questioning by Democratic Rep. Mike Honda, who as an infant was sent with his parents to a Japanese internment camp during World War II and has compared that policy to the NYPD's treatment of Muslims.
The attorney general was on Capitol Hill to discuss the Justice Department's federal budget.
Holder did not suggest that a Justice Department investigation of the NYPD was imminent. Over the last six months, the AP has revealed the inner workings of secret programs of the NYPD, built with help from the CIA, to monitor Muslims.
Honda said his goal Tuesday was to push the issue so that Holder pays more attention to what's going on in New York.
The AP has reported that some of the NYPD's activities — such as its 2006 surveillance of Masjid Omar, a mosque in Paterson, New Jersey — could not have been performed under federal rules unless the FBI believed that the mosque itself was part of a criminal enterprise. Even then, federal agents would need approval from senior FBI and Justice Department officials.
At the NYPD, however, such monitoring was common, former police officials said. Federal law enforcement officials told the AP that the mosque itself was never under federal investigation and they were unaware the NYPD was monitoring it so closely.
According to secret police files obtained by the AP, the NYPD instructed its officers to watch the mosque and, as people came and went from the Friday prayer service, investigators were to record license plates and photograph and videotape those attending. The file offered no evidence of criminal activity.
The FBI also would be prohibited from keeping police files on innocuous statements that imams made during sermons, which the NYPD did. In addition, the FBI would not be allowed to keep police files on Muslim students for discussing academic conferences online and would not be allowed to build databases of Americans who changed their names to ones sounding Arabic, which the NYPD did.
Since late August, 34 members of Congress, Muslim civil rights groups and most recently Ivy League universities and New Jersey officials have asked the Justice Department to investigate the NYPD's intelligence division.
The Obama administration has pointedly refused to endorse or repudiate the NYPD programs, which the AP reported Monday are at least partly funded under a White House federal grant intended to help law enforcement fight drug crimes.
In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Tuesday invoked the 1993 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center and the successful attacks in 2001 that destroyed it, in a renewed defense of the NYPD. "We said back then we are not going to forget this time around," he said. "We will not. We are not going to forget."
Associated Press writers Matt Apuzzo in Washington, Samantha Gross in New York and Bruce Shipkowski in New Jersey contributed to this report.