08/31/2011 05:00 pm ET | Updated Oct 31, 2011

NYPD's Cooperation With CIA Lacks Effective Oversight, Civil Liberties Groups Say

Last week the Associated Press came out with an explosive -- or "underwhelming," depending on your point of view -- article about the NYPD's collaboration with the CIA.

An assistant commissioner charged with setting up the department's counter-terrorism intelligence program was simultaneously on the CIA payroll, according to the piece, raising questions about whether the foreign intelligence agency was trying to skirt laws against domestic spying.

The police department, the piece also revealed, was using a post-9/11 "Demographics Unit" to send speakers of Arabic, Pashto and other languages out to mosques as "rakers" to collect intelligence on potential terrorism plots. That had First Amendment watchdogs concerned the police were keeping an eye on Muslims simply because of their religion.

According to NYPD spokesman Paul Browne, however, the "Demographics Unit" and its purported "mosque crawlers" don't exist.

"There is no such unit," he claimed when the AP's piece was published.

The NYPD argues that it has only acted when it has had suspicion of criminal activity, and that its work with the CIA is necessary in the post-9/11 world.

On Wednesday the AP pushed out another article examining internal department communication about the Demographics Unit.

The wire service's second piece included corroborating PDFs of a memo from the unit's supervisor and a PowerPoint presentation, replete with NYPD logos, explaining in some detail the unit's detachment: two sergeants, ten detectives, and four police officers, all detailed to scour New York for "Jihad Tapes" and "Cricket matches," among other supposed indicators of terrorism.

The newest report highlights a question also raised in the earlier piece: whether the city's elected leaders can effectively oversee a program that, officially speaking, doesn't exist.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has generally deferred to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly on public safety issues during his tenure, last week voiced a blanket defense of the department's post-9/11 practices, saying that the department has followed the relevant laws.

City Council Public Safety Committee Chair Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Queens) said the latest revelations don't change his earlier estimation that the AP had put out a "very unfair article" -- and that whatever name the NYPD's practices are conducted under, he is comfortable with the department's actions to protect against terror.

"I am aware of the general anti-terror methods and techniques used by the NYPD, but not all of the specific names they use to distinguish them," Vallone said over email.

Vallone has said that the NYPD has kept him abreast of its intelligence-gathering tactics in private meetings.

"Mapping ethnic communities is expected and necessary," he added. "The Muslim community itself has been the subject of harassment and threats and the police obviously need to know where to deploy to protect them."

For now, most other members of the Council seem to be following the chairman's lead. Council Speaker Christine Quinn's office (D-Manhattan) referred questions about the program to Vallone last week. The Huffington Post contacted every member of the Public Safety Committee for comment on the first AP piece, and as of yet none have expressed concern about its revelations.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said "the chair of the Public Safety Committee may have a clue as to what's been going on, but that's no substitute for real oversight."

"This latest revelation does not inspire confidence," Lieberman said.

Spotted at a hurricane evacuation center on Friday, committee member Vincent Gentile (D-Brooklyn) said, "I haven't had the opportunity to talk to Chairman Vallone, but I presume we're probably going to do hearings on that issue. I don't want to say too much about it now, because I only know what I read in the newspaper. I don't think any of us were aware of what we read about, so it's going to be interesting to see what we can find out."

The Public Safety Committee's next meeting is scheduled for September 27. Vallone said he believed the topics discussed in the AP pieces would be raised then.

So far only Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn), who is not a member of the Public Safety Committee, has publicly called for oversight of the NYPD's cooperation with the CIA. A number of councilmembers and staffers are out of town for vacation as Labor Day approaches, and the full Council's next meeting does not occur until September 8.

Lieberman would, at the very least, like to see a more formalized process for NYPD intelligence oversight. "The CIA is subject to formal regulations and is required to report to Congress," she said. "The AP stories raise concerns about whether the NYPD is operating like New York's own CIA."

Councilmember Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn), who has been outspoken with regards to the NYPD's drug arrests practices, said on Tuesday that he was withholding judgment of the CIA collaboration and "Demographics Unit" until he learned more.

Yet at the same time, Williams noted, "we definitely need more oversight of the NYPD. Unfortunately the [City] Charter doesn't give us as much as I would like, and hopefully some of that will change."

Civil liberties advocates and Muslim-American groups are looking beyond the City Council to press their case about the NYPD's work with the CIA.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, along with the NYCLU, has called for a Justice Department investigation of the practices revealed in the AP piece.

"We don't get the sense that there's any type of alarm that what the NYPD is doing is improper or a waste of the taxpayer's dollars," said Gadeir Abbas, a staff attorney for CAIR.

"Which is really a sign of the times," he continued. "It is okay for law enforcement to target the American Muslim community."

Barring a Justice Department investigation, CAIR and the NYCLU may need to press their case in court.

CAIR and the NYCLU hope to revive the Handschu guidelines, a set of rules that are supposed to prevent NYPD from intelligence-gathering operations that might chill free speech. Those restrictions were loosened by a federal judge after the September 11 attacks.

In addition, the City Council passed a law in 2004 that prohibited the NYPD from racial, ethnic, or religious profiling. CAIR has demanded that law be enforced.