WASHINGTON — One of the Obama administration's go-to civil rights groups in its efforts to build relationships with American Muslims is suing the New York Police Department over its surveillance programs, some of which were paid for with federal money.
Eight Muslims filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday in New Jersey to force the NYPD to end its surveillance and other intelligence-gathering practices targeting Muslims in the years after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The lawsuit alleged that the NYPD's activities were unconstitutional because they focused on people's religion, national origin and race.
It is the first lawsuit to directly challenge the NYPD's surveillance programs that targeted entire Muslim neighborhoods, chronicling the daily life of where people ate, prayed and got their hair cut. The surveillance was the subject of series of stories by The Associated Press that revealed the NYPD intelligence division infiltrated dozens of mosques and Muslim student groups and investigated hundreds.
The Muslims suing the NYPD are represented by Muslim Advocates, a California-based civil rights group that meets regularly with members of the Obama administration.
One of the lawsuit's plaintiffs stopped attending one New Jersey mosque after learning it was listed in an NYPD file. The mosque, like and dozens of others along the East Coast and listed in NYPD files, was not linked to terrorism either publicly or in the confidential police documents.
Syed Farhaj Hassan, a specialist in the U.S. Army Reserves, said he worried that if his name, or the name of one of his mosques, turned up in a police intelligence dossier, it could jeopardize his military security clearance or job prospects.
"Guilt by association is a career stopper, it's a show stopper, it's an ender," he said. "What happens when that name comes up when you're looking for a job?"
The Obama administration has offered few comments on the NYPD's programs, even as it released plans in the past year for local police departments around the country to counter violent extremism and build relationships in Muslim communities.
Since last fall, the Justice Department has been reviewing requests to investigate the NYPD. And President Barack Obama's counterterrorism adviser has said the NYPD does not appear to be breaking any laws. The NYPD has received large federal counterterrorism grants since the 2001 attacks, and a White House anti-drug program has helped pay for some of the NYPD's surveillance equipment.
When asked about the lawsuit Wednesday, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly said, "I would just refer them to the New Jersey Attorney General's report that found no wrong doing."
Kelly was referring to findings from a three-month review that New Jersey's attorney general conducted in response to outrage over the NYPD operating secretly in New Jersey neighborhoods where Muslims lived and worked. The state attorney general found that the NYPD did not violate any state laws when it spied on Muslim neighborhoods and organizations, and found there is no recourse for the state of New Jersey to stop the NYPD from infiltrating Muslim student groups, video-taping mosque-goers or collecting their license plate numbers as they prayed.
No court has ruled that the NYPD programs were illegal. But the division operates without significant oversight: The New York City Council does not believe it has the expertise to oversee the intelligence division, and Congress believes the NYPD is not part of its jurisdiction even though the police department receives huge amounts of federal funding each year.
Kelly has said his department is obligated to do this type of surveillance in order to protect New York from another 9/11. He has said the 2001 attacks proved that New Yorkers could not rely solely on the federal government for protection, and the NYPD needed to enhance its efforts.
The lawsuit alleges that these enhancements violate constitutional rights.
"The NYPD program is founded upon a false and constitutionally impermissible premise: that Muslim religious identity is a legitimate criterion for selection of law-enforcement surveillance targets," according to the lawsuit.
Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, said, "There is no reason a police officer should be scribbling notes on little girls attending an elementary school."
The advocacy group, representing the plaintiffs for free, has a good and constructive relationship with the Obama administration, Khera said.
In 2009, Khera was the only representative from an American Muslim advocacy organization who was invited to attend the White House iftar dinner, a Muslim tradition of breaking the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan, the group said. The organization was invited to a meeting at the White House in 2010 to discuss views on a Supreme Court vacancy. And the Justice Department invited the group to sit on a panel last year about confronting discrimination since 9/11.
Khera said her organization has asked the Obama administration to look into the NYPD's programs, and she thinks more could be done.
"We do not think that they've been given sufficient attention and attention in a speedy manner," Khera said. "We do think this is an immensely important issue to have the nation's largest police department targeting Americans based on religion. We do think it merits the attention of the federal government."
The White House said it would not comment on pending litigation.
The NYPD and New York officials have said the surveillance programs violated no one's constitutional rights, and the NYPD is allowed to travel anywhere to collect information. Officials have said NYPD lawyers closely review the intelligence division's programs.
Members of Congress and civil rights groups have urged the Justice Department to investigate the NYPD's practices. Federal investigations into police departments typically focus on police abuse or racial profiling in arrests. Since 9/11, the Justice Department has never publicly investigated a police department for its surveillance in national security investigations.
The NYPD has been limited by a court order in what intelligence it can gather on innocent people because of widespread civil rights abuses during the 1950s and 1960s. Lawyers in that case have questioned whether the post-9/11 spying violates that order. The lawsuit filed Wednesday is a separate legal challenge.
A George Washington University law professor, Jonathan Turley, said it would be a challenge to convince the government that the NYPD's practices were illegal because the courts and Congress have allowed more and more surveillance in the years since 9/11. But, he said, most of these questions have been handled in policy debates and not in the court systems.
Moiz Mohammed, a 19-year-old sophomore at Rutgers University, said he joined the lawsuit after reading reports that the NYPD had conducted surveillance of Muslim student groups at colleges across the Northeast, including his own.
"It's such an unfair thing going on: Here I am, I am an American citizen, I was born here, I am law abiding, I volunteer in my community, I have dialogues and good relationships with Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and the NYPD here is surveilling people like me?"
Mohammed said the revelations made him nervous to pray in public or engage in lively debates with fellow students – a practice he said he once most enjoyed about the college atmosphere.
It is also a practice the Obama administration has said must be protected.
"Law enforcement has an obligation to ensure that members of every religious community enjoy the ability to worship and to practice their faith in peace, free from intimidation, violence or suspicion," Holder said in prepared remarks to a Muslim Advocates dinner in December 2010. "That is the right of all Americans. And it must be a reality for every citizen."
Associated Press reporters Samantha Henry in Newark, David Caruso, Tom Hays and researcher Judith Ausuebel in New York contributed to this story.
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