NEW YORK -- The mayor faced off with the president of Yale University on Tuesday over an effort by the city's police department to monitor Muslim student groups for any signs that their members harbored terrorist sympathies.
The Associated Press revealed over the weekend that in recent years the New York Police Department has kept close watch on Muslim student associations across the Northeast. The effort included daily tracking of student websites and blogs, monitoring who was speaking to the groups and sending an undercover officer on a whitewater rafting trip with students from the City College of New York.
Yale President Richard Levin was among a number of academics who condemned the effort in a statement Monday, while Rutgers University and leaders of student Muslim groups elsewhere called for investigations into the monitoring.
"I am writing to state, in the strongest possible terms, that police surveillance based on religion, nationality, or peacefully expressed political opinions is antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community, and the United States," Levin wrote.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaking to reporters on Tuesday, dismissed those criticisms as baseless.
"I don't know why keeping the country safe is antithetical to the values of Yale," he said.
He said it was "ridiculous" to argue that there was anything wrong with officers keeping an eye on websites that are available to the general public.
"Of course we're going to look at anything that's publicly available in the public domain," he said. "We have an obligation to do so, and it is to protect the very things that let Yale survive."
Asked by a reporter if he thought it was a "step too far" to send undercover investigators to accompany students on rafting vacations, Bloomberg said: "No. We have to keep this country safe."
"It's very cute to go and blame everybody and say we should stay away from anything that smacks of intelligence gathering," he said. "The job of our law enforcement is to make sure that they prevent things. And you only do that by being proactive."
Bloomberg, an independent, added that he believed that police officers had respected people's privacy and obeyed the law.
The campus monitoring program was part of a broad effort by the NYPD, initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, to try to spot any burgeoning terror cells in the U.S. before they had a chance to act. The NYPD monitoring of college campuses included schools far beyond the city limits.
Police talked with local authorities about professors 300 miles away in upstate Buffalo. The undercover agent who attended the City College rafting trip recorded students' names and noted in police intelligence files how many times they prayed. Detectives trawled Muslim student websites every day and, although professors and students had not been accused of any wrongdoing, their names were recorded in reports prepared for police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
Officers kept tabs on student groups at Yale; Columbia; The University of Pennsylvania; Syracuse; Rutgers; New York University; Clarkson University; the State University of New York campuses in Buffalo, Albany, Stony Brook and Potsdam; Queens College, Baruch College, Brooklyn College and La Guardia Community College.
Levin said Yale's police department did not participate in any monitoring by the NYPD and was unaware of it.
An NYPD spokesman, Paul Browne, explained the effort as an attempt to learn more about student organizations that could be ripe for infiltration by terror recruiters. He cited 12 people arrested or convicted on terrorism charges in the United States and abroad who had once been members of Muslim student associations, or MSAs.
He acknowledged that police monitored student websites and collected publicly available information but said law-abiding students have nothing to fear.
"Students who advertised events or sent emails about regular events should not be worried about a terrorism file being kept on them," he said. "NYPD only investigated persons who we had reasonable suspicion to believe might be involved in unlawful activities."
A Muslim student leader at Yale, Faisal Hamid, challenged the NYPD's justification.
"An MSA is simply a group of Muslim students; just because a terrorist happened to be member of an MSA does not mean that MSAs, which nationally represents hundreds of thousands of Muslim students, have any connection to criminal activity," Hamid said. "Law enforcement should pursue actual leads, not imaginary ones based on Islamophobia."
Syracuse University does "not approve of, or support, any surveillance or investigation of student groups based solely on ethnicity, religion or political viewpoint," said Kevin Quinn, senior vice president for public affairs at Syracuse.
Columbia University "would obviously be concerned about anything that could chill our essential values of academic freedom or intrude on student privacy," spokesman Robert Hornsby said.
The University of Buffalo said in a statement that it "does not conduct this kind of surveillance, and, if asked, UB would not voluntarily cooperate with such a request. As a public university, UB strongly supports the values of freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of religion, and a reasonable expectation of privacy."
The University of Pennsylvania contacted the NYPD and received assurances that none of its students is being monitored, a spokesman said.
The Connecticut chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called for officials to investigate to determine the extent of the monitoring and how to prevent it from happening again.
"They're just going out and casting a wide net around a whole community, so they're criminalizing in a way a whole community based on their religion," said Mongi Dhaouadi, director of CAIR in Connecticut.
Rutgers University, based in New Jersey, called for the NYPD to investigate its own activities. The Muslim Student Association at Rutgers called the monitoring a violation of civil rights.
"The Rutgers populace should openly condemn the clear violations of the NYPD, who conducted illegitimate profiling outside of their jurisdiction and breached the constitutional rights of an individual," the Rutgers student group said in a statement.
The Association of Muslim American Lawyers called for the New York attorney general to investigate.
The Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada expressed concerns as well. Its president, Zahir Latheef, said the NYPD "clearly overstepped its boundaries when it began spying on average American Muslim college students who were simply taking whitewater rafting trips or innocently participating in school activities at their college or university campus."
The Muslim Students Association of the University at Buffalo said it felt discriminated against "by this secret investigation conducted by a police agency 400 miles away."
The student monitoring was part of a much larger intelligence operation that has put entire Muslim neighborhoods under scrutiny. The NYPD built databases showing where Muslims lived, worked, shopped and prayed. Plainclothes officers known as rakers eavesdropped in cafes, and informants known as mosque crawlers reported on weekly sermons.
Defenders of those efforts say police investigators need to understand the community to spot potential plots.
Bloomberg has repeatedly cited the need for vigilance, although he has insisted that the NYPD only follows leads and denied that it engages in wholesale spying.
Asked whether he was aware of an NYPD agent being sent on a college rafting trip, Bloomberg said, "I have no idea. The only whitewater rafting I've done I did with my daughter. I don't think she had a lot of information that I was interested in. In terms of her political views."
Since the AP began reporting on these programs in August, civil liberties groups and nearly three dozen members of Congress have called for the Justice Department to investigate.
But calls for an inquiry have yielded little. The NYPD's intelligence unit operates in secret. Even the City Council, which funds the department, isn't told about police intelligence operations. And though the NYPD receives hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money, the administration of President Barack Obama has repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether it endorses the NYPD's tactics.
Christoffersen reported from New Haven, Conn. Associated Press writers Matt Apuzzo in Washington, Samantha Henry in Newark, N.J., and Rik Stevens in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.