Nobody in New York government has the expertise and authority to oversee the police department's secret intelligence operations, a leading city councilman says, raising questions about what checks exist on a department that has infiltrated mosques and subjected entire Muslim neighborhoods to surveillance and scrutiny.
Peter Vallone, the chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee, said the council doesn't have the power to subpoena the NYPD for its intelligence records. And even if it did, he said the operations are too sophisticated for city officials to effectively oversee. More oversight is likely needed, he said, perhaps from the federal government.
"That portion of the police department's work should probably be looked at by a federal monitor," he said after Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly testified Thursday at City Hall.
If the council cannot oversee the intelligence division, it's unclear who can. The NYPD's intelligence unit is a politically sensitive topic for Washington, which has invested more than $1.6 billion in the department since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Congress and Obama administration officials say they also have no authority to monitor the day-to-day intelligence operations of the NYPD.
Since 9/11, the department has grown into one of the nation's most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies, one that has monitored all aspects of Muslim life in New York and surrounding states.
An Associated Press investigation revealed that a secret squad known as the Demographic Unit sent plainclothes officers called "rakers" to eavesdrop in Muslim communities, helping police build databases of where people shop, eat, work and pray. Police documents show authorities scrutinized Muslim neighborhoods, often not because of accusations of wrongdoing but because of residents' ethnicity.
The department's tactics appear to run counter to many of President Barack Obama's core strategies for combating terrorism, but the administration has repeatedly sidestepped questions about them.
Kelly told council members that the department's internal accountability was rigorous and ensured that civil rights were being protected. And he said everything the department does is in line with court rules, known as the Handschu guidelines, that limit how and why police can collect intelligence before there's evidence of a crime.
"The value we place on privacy rights and other constitutional protections is part of what motivates the work of counterterrorism," he said. "It would be counterproductive in the extreme if we violated those freedoms in the course of our work to defend New York."
That did not sit well with Muslim community leaders who said Kelly was asking them to take it on faith that their rights were being protected.
"It's really frustrating when we hear Commissioner Kelly say, 'We're having our lawyers look at it and it's OK,'" said Fahd Amed, legal and policy director of the South Asian civil rights group Desis Rising Up and Moving. "That does not suffice."
Kelly testified that community mapping programs were essential for police, who relied on them to know where to look after receiving threats.
"Establishing this kind of geographically based knowledge of the city's communities saves precious time in deterring fast-moving plots," he said.
Asked whether the NYPD conducted similar mapping of Irish communities, Kelly replied: "We don't do it ethnically. We do it geographically."
Among documents obtained by the AP were records related to an effort known as the Moroccan Initiative, a program that cataloged every aspect of life in Moroccan communities. Officers photographed businesses and noted the ethnicity of the owners — and in some cases, whether they served a Muslim clientele.
The goal was to create a database of life in Moroccan communities, from where people ate and shopped to where they got their hair cut and prayed. The documents indicate plans to build similar databases for other ethnicities.
Kelly said the Moroccan Initiative was the result of a lead on possible criminal behavior. His officers follow leads and don't ethnic profile, he said.
"But it's the whole community that you're looking at," said Daniel Dromm, a councilman from Queens.
Documents show the department also maintained a list of 28 countries that, along with "American Black Muslim," it described as "ancestries of interest." Police also investigated hundreds of mosques and Muslim student groups and infiltrated dozens, often relying on undercover officers and informants. Even Muslim leaders who worked with the police and stood shoulder to shoulder with Mayor Michael Bloomberg were put under surveillance, documents show.
"The AP stories make it hard to believe we're getting the balance right," said Brad Lander, a Brooklyn councilman.
"That's your opinion," Kelly said. "We're following the Handschu guidelines."
The intelligence unit was built with unusual help from the CIA. A veteran officer, while on the CIA payroll, was the architect of many of the intelligence programs now under scrutiny. And the agency trained an NYPD detective at the famed spy school known that as the Farm, then returned him to New York to put his skills to work.
Recently, the CIA sent one of its most senior clandestine officers to work out of NYPD headquarters.
The CIA's inspector general is investigating whether that relationship was improper. The U.S. director of national intelligence, James Clapper, recently told Congress that it did not look good for the CIA to be involved in any city police department's operations.
Lawmakers in Washington and New York have also requested investigations by the U.S. Justice Department and New York attorney general.