NYPD Docs Show Focus on Muslim Americans as Groups Call for an End of Surveillance

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The NYPD collected information on many American-owned businesses in New York City, specifically because they were owned by Muslim-Americans, according to secret documents obtained by the Associated Press. Several Muslim groups are calling for an end to the practice, even as Mayor Michael Bloomberg continues to defend the department's methods.

The documents shows that the department was monitoring people based on religion.

The NYPD’s Demographics Unit investigated the city’s Syrian, Egyptian and even Albanian populations in 2006, but only the Muslim portions. The Syrian Jewish population and the Egyptian Coptic Christian population were not reported on according to the NYPD documents.  Many of the businesses under surveillance were run by American-born citizens whose families had been here for decades.

"The majority of Syrians encountered by members of the Demographics Unit are second- or even third-generation Syrian Americans," the Syrian report said. "It is unusual to encounter a first generation or new arrival Syrian in New York City."

Police photographed businesses and eavesdropped inside, making note of the people that visited the business, papers that were around and even what was playing on the television. The thinking was that if police ever received a tip that a Syrian was planning an attack, investigators would know where to look because the entire community was already on file.

The result, though, was that many people were put into police files, not for criminal activity, but because they were part of daily life in their neighborhood.

But some of the owners of places found in the reports didn’t mind. Mahmoud Gamaa has owned Sahara East, a restaurant and hookah lounge in the East Village for more than two decades. He wasn't aware that his place was on the list, but says is happy the police are watching.

“I'm here, living in America 25 years I think the police, the government, they're very fair with the Muslim world. I'm here when September 11th happened. We get protected by the police, the police show us love, the neighbor, the American, everybody,” he said.

Gamaa thinks he may be on the list because his business shares a wall with the Medina mosque, next door.

On Friday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg continued to defend the department’s methods. "We're doing the right thing. We will continue to do the right thing. We do take every precaution possible to not do anything that ever violates the law. You've just got to be very careful not to take away the rights that we're trying to protect."

It comes a day after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the NYPD's surveillance of Muslims in New Jersey "disturbing." Bloomberg tried to downplay the criticism the covert operation has received from officials.

Speaking on his weekly WOR-AM radio show Friday, Bloomberg said he disagrees with claims the NYPD's actions are undermining inter-agency cooperation on counter-terrorism.

"There’s always that tension," he said. "But to say the NYPD and the FBI and the CIA don’t work together is ridiculous. They work seamlessly together. You are well-served, I can just tell you that."

Meeting With Muslim Leaders

In an effort to quell some of the criticism surrounding the program, NYPD Commissioner Kelly met with more Muslim leaders on Friday. It was his second meeting this leaders from the Muslim community this week to discuss the methods used by the department and talk over Muslim concerns.

City Human Rights Commissioner Omar Mohammedi, who attended the meeting, says he suggested a town hall style meeting where Kelly would speak to the community. He says Kelly was receptive to their suggestions.

But a group of Muslim activists were outside police headquarters, saying the six leaders meeting with Kelly did not represent the entire Muslim community in the city. They argued that the Muslim leaders gathered inside were hand-selected members of the community known to be supportive of the administration.

Fahd Ahmed, with the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition, said, "For those of us that work with community members, we know people that have been harassed, followed, intimidated, and pressured to become informants. This is not just a quiet surveillance program. They are going into the community and disrupting lives.”

(Photo: Fahd Ahmed speaks out against the NYPD's surveillance of Muslims in the community, as Commissioner Kelly meets with other leaders of the Muslim community inside NYPD HQ./ Jessie Wright-Mendoza for WNYC)

The Islamic Leadership Council of Metropolitan New York and the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition also said they oppose any meeting organized by the NYPD that is "not transparent" and has a "predetermined agenda."

Groups representing over 65 Muslim organizations have asked the New York Police Department to stop monitoring the activities of Muslims, called for oversight.

On Thursday, Holder said the Justice Department is looking into the NYPD's 2007 intelligence gathering efforts in Newark, N.J., and its monitoring of Muslim student groups and websites around the Northeast.

Earlier this week, New Jersey's top FBI official, special agent Michael Ward, said the operations in Newark have damaged relations between the agency and Muslims who have worked with it in the past.

With reporting from Annmarie Fertoli, Jessie Wright-Mendoza and the Associated Press