Civil liberties lawyers sought to impose a restraining order on the NYPD in federal court Monday to stop the destruction of any evidence related to the alleged surveillance of Muslim communities since the September 11 attacks.
They also hope to initiate an investigation into the allegations, made by the Associated Press in a recent series of reports, which the NYPD have rejected as false.
"Based on this evidence, there is reason to believe that the NYPD retains records of surveillance of public places that are not limited to information pertaining to 'potential unlawful activity or terrorism,'" lawyers told U.S. District Judge Charles Haight on Monday.
Attorneys overseeing the so-called Handschu agreement — a 40-year case that has continuously shaped the extent to which police can conduct surveillance and can maintain records of surveillance — will go before Judge Charles Haight, who has long presided over the Handschu case.
According to attorney Jethro Eisenstein, the AP's claims that the NYPD kept records of the activities of law-abiding Muslims in restaurants, mosques and other places indicated a violation of the existing Handschu guidelines.
"They very specifically prohibit the retention of information that's been gleaned from that kind of visit to public places, unless it involves either unlawful activity or potential terrorist activities," he said. He added the AP's claims that the NYPD was "shredding" evidence, added urgency to the need for a restraining order.
A spokesperson for the city's law department said she had not yet seen the legal papers and was thus not in a position to issue a comment. NYPD spokesman Paul Browne told the AP that the department only monitored the movements of potential terrorists.
According to Eisenstein, another dimension of the AP investigation — that CIA personnel allegedly cooperated with the surveillance effort — would not be addressed in court, despite federal restrictions prohibiting domestic surveillance by the spy agency.
"Someone else is going to have to address the absolutely forbidden involvement of the CIA in domestic spying," he said.
Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice, said Muslim community groups were "extremely concerned" about the revelations.
"Individuals and institutions who believe that they were monitored are considering a range of options in response, including litigation, encouraging elected officials to exercise greater oversight over the NYPD and asking the federal government to intervene through a Department of Justice investigation or congressional hearings."
Some U.S. lawmakers, including Reps. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., and Rush Holt, D-N.J., have said the NYPD programs are blatantly racial profiling and have asked the Justice Department to investigate.
Rep. Peter King, R-NY, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and one of the most vocal supporters of the NYPD, said criticism of the police programs amounts to little more than political correctness. "Now, some people may disagree with the policy. They may feel that it's too aggressive," he said. "To me, I think what we need is aggressive counterterrorism."
Another attorney for Muslim groups who is not involved in this legal action, Lamis Jamal Deek, said the legal maneuvers were being made "in a bit of a vacuum."
"I am not involved in this aspect, but have received and reviewed the leaks, happen to know the majority of targets listed, and almost all will be meeting [Monday] to work on a multi-faceted response which will include, but in no way be limited to, the lawsuits," she wrote in an email. Muslim community groups worried about spying are planning a meting on the issue. "Once we have the meeting, folks are informed of the type and extent of surveillance, we will prepare a press conference to announce our plans.