NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The mayor and police director of New Jersey’s largest city said Wednesday the New York Police Department misled their city and never told them it was conducting a widespread spying operation on Newark’s Muslim neighborhoods. Had they known, they said, they never would have allowed it.
“If anyone in my police department had known this was a blanket investigation of individuals based on nothing but their religion, that strikes at the core of our beliefs and my beliefs very personally, and it would have merited a far sterner response,” Newark Mayor Cory Booker said.
In mid-2007, the NYPD’s secretive Demographics Unit fanned out across Newark, photographing every mosque and eavesdropping in Muslim businesses. The findings were cataloged in a 60-page report, obtained by The Associated Press, that served as a police guidebook to Newark’s Muslims.
There was no mention of terrorism or any criminal wrongdoing.
Newark Police Director Samuel DeMaio was deputy chief of the department at the time. He said the NYPD asked to be shown around the city. New York police said it was part of an investigation but never revealed what it was about, DeMaio said.
“We really want to be clear: This type of activity is not what the Newark PD would ever do,” he said.
Such surveillance has become common in New York City in the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Nearly 3,000 Americans died when al-Qaida terrorists hijacked airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon near Washington and a field where one crashed in Pennsylvania.
Police have built databases showing 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 local ethnic groups, from Moroccans to Egyptians to Albanians.
But the NYPD’s intelligence unit also operates far outside its jurisdiction and has worked to keep tabs on Muslims across the Northeast. The department has cataloged Muslim communities in Long Island, conducted undercover operations in New Brunswick, N.J., and has turned often innocuous Internet postings by Muslim student groups into police files.
The monitoring of Muslim college students across the Northeast drew sharp rebukes from administrators at Yale, Columbia and elsewhere earlier this week. But New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued his most vigorous defense of his police department to date.
“The police department goes where there are allegations. And they look to see whether those allegations are true,” he told reporters Tuesday. “That’s what you’d expect them to do. That’s what you’d want them to do. Remind yourself when you turn out the light tonight.”
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne did not respond to a message seeking comment on the Newark effort Wednesday. He has previously denied the existence of the Demographics Unit.
The documents obtained by the AP show, for the first time in any detail, how the NYPD’s intelligence-gathering efforts stretched outside the department’s jurisdiction. New Jersey and Long Island residents had no reason to suspect the NYPD was watching them. And the department is not accountable to their votes or tax dollars.
NYPD conducted similar operations in Suffolk and Nassau counties on suburban Long Island, according to police records.
“All of these are innocent people,” Nagiba el-Sioufi of Newark said recently while her husband, Mohammed, flipped through the NYPD report, looking at photos of mosques and storefronts frequented by their friends.
Egyptian immigrants and American citizens, the couple raised two daughters in the United States. Mohammed works as an accountant and is vice president of the Islamic Culture Center, a mosque a few blocks from Newark City Hall.
“If you have an accusation on us, then spend the money on doing this to us,” Nagiba said. “But you have no accusation.”
The Newark police director at the time, Garry McCarthy, is now in charge of the Chicago Police Department. He said the NYPD initiated the operation and none of his officers participated.
The goal of the report, like others the Demographics Unit compiled, was to give police at-their-fingertips access to information about Muslim neighborhoods. If police got a tip about an Egyptian terrorist in the area, for instance, they wanted to immediately know where he was likely to find a cheap room to rent, where he might buy his lunch and at what mosque he might attend Friday prayers.
“These locations provide the maximum ability to assess the general opinions and general activity of these communities,” the NYPD Newark report said.
The effect of the program was that hundreds of American citizens were cataloged — sometimes by name, sometimes simply by their businesses and their ethnicity — in secret police files that spanned hundreds of pages:
— “A Black Muslim male named Mussa was working in the rear of store,” an NYPD detective wrote after a clandestine visit to a dollar store in Shirley, N.Y., on Long Island.
— “The manager of this restaurant is an Indian Muslim male named Vicky Amin” was the report back from an Indian restaurant in Lindenhurst, N.Y., also on Long Island.
— “Owned and operated by an African Muslim (possibly Sudanese) male named Abdullah Ddita,” was the summary from another dollar store in Shirley, N.Y., just off the highway on the way to the Hamptons, the wealthy Long Island getaway.
In one report, an officer describes how he put people at ease by speaking in Punjabi and Urdu, languages commonly spoken in Pakistan.
There are no allegations of terrorism in the Demographics Unit reports, and the documents make clear that police were interested only in locations frequented by Muslims. The canvass of businesses in Newark mentions Islam and Muslims 27 times. In one section of the report, police wrote that the largest immigrant groups in Newark were from Portugal and Brazil. But they did not photograph businesses or churches for those groups.
“No Muslim component within these communities was identified,” police wrote, except for one business owned by a Brazilian Muslim of Palestinian descent.
Polls show that most New Yorkers strongly support the NYPD’s counterterrorism efforts and don’t believe police unfairly target Muslims. Civil rights groups and Muslim activists, however, have called for Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s resignation over the spying and the department’s screening of a video that portrays Muslims as wanting to dominate the United States.
In Newark, the report was met with a mixture of confusion and anger.
“Come, look at yourself on film,” Abdul Kareem Abdullah called to his wife as he flipped through the NYPD files at the lunch counter of their restaurant, Hamidah’s Cafe.
An American-born citizen who converted to Islam decades ago, Abdullah said he understands why, after the 9/11 terror attacks, people are afraid of Muslims. But he said he wishes the police would stop by, say hello, meet him and his customers and get to know them. The documents show police have no interest in that, he said.
“They just want to keep tabs on us,” he said. “If they really wanted to understand, they’d come talk to us.”
Newark Mayor Booker met with Islamic leaders while campaigning for his post. Those interviewed by the AP said they wanted to believe he didn’t authorize the spying but wanted to hear from him directly.
“I have to look in his eyes,” Mohammed el-Sioufi said at his mosque. “I know him. I met him. He was here.”
Because officers conducted the operation covertly, the reports contain mistakes that could have been corrected had the officers talked to store owners or imams. If police ever had to rely on the database during an unfolding terrorism emergency as they had planned, those errors would have hindered their efforts.
For instance, locals said several businesses identified as belonging to African-American Muslims actually were owned by Afghans or Pakistanis. El-Sioufi’s mosque is listed as an African-American mosque, but he said the imam is from Egypt and the congregation is a roughly even mix of black converts and people of foreign ancestries.
“We’re not trying to hide anything. We are out in the open,” said Abdul A. Muhammad, the imam of the Masjid Ali Muslim mosque in Newark. “You want to come in? We have an open door policy.”
By choosing instead to conduct such widespread surveillance, Mohammed el-Sioufi said, police send the message that the whole community is suspect.
“When you spy on someone, you are kind of accusing them. You are not accepting them for choosing Islam,” Nagiba el-Sioufi said. “This doesn’t say, ‘This guy did something wrong.’ This says, ‘Everyone here is a Muslim.’”
“It makes you feel uncomfortable, like this is not your country,” she added. “This is our country.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.