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NYPD tracked Muslim daily life, not just terror tips

| Saturday, March 10, 2012

NEW YORK -- The New York Police Department collected information on businesses owned by second- and third-generation Americans specifically because they were Muslims, according to newly obtained secret documents.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has defended his department's efforts, saying they have kept the city safe, were completely legal and were not based on religion.

"We don't stop to think about the religion," Bloomberg said at a news conference in August after The Associated Press began revealing the spying. "We stop to think about the threats and focus our efforts there."

In late 2007, however, plainclothes officers in the department's secretive Demographics Unit were assigned to investigate the region's Syrian population. Police photographed businesses and eavesdropped at lunch counters and inside grocery stores and pastry shops. And though most people of Syrian heritage living in the area were Jewish, Jews were excluded from the monitoring.

Similarly, police excluded the city's sizable Coptic Christian population when photographing, monitoring and eavesdropping on Egyptian businesses in 2007, according to the police files.

Many of those under surveillance were American-born citizens whose families have been here for the better part of a century.

The Demographics Unit was conceived in secret years ago as a way to identify communities where terrorists might hide and to spot potential problems early.

If police, for example, received a tip that an Egyptian terrorist was plotting an attack, investigators looking for him would have the entire community already on file. They would know where he was likely to pray, who might rent him a cheap room, where he'd find a convenient Internet cafe and where he probably would buy his groceries.

As a result, many people were put into police files, not for criminal activities but because they were part of daily life in their neighborhoods. Shopkeepers were named in police files, their ethnicities listed. Muslim college students who attended a rafting trip or discussed upcoming religious lectures on campus were cataloged. Worshippers arriving at mosques were photographed and had their license plate numbers collected by police.

The Demographics Unit is one example of how, since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the NYPD has transformed itself into one of the most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies in the country, operating with little oversight and in areas outside the city such as New Jersey.

And although civil rights lawyers disagree, the legal question isn't expected to be settled soon. In the meantime, the NYPD has become a flashpoint in the debate over the balance between civil rights and security.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress on Thursday he was disturbed by what he's read about the NYPD's surveillance and that it is "under review at the Justice Department."

Police said they can't afford to become complacent or ignore the reality that Islamic terrorists carried out the 2001 attacks and others. If Muslim neighborhoods feel unfairly singled out, however, it could reinforce the perception that the United States is at war with Islam, which al-Qaida has used as a major recruiting pitch.

The Damascus Bread and Pastry Shop in Brooklyn, where judges and lawyers from the nearby federal courthouse frequently dine on fresh baklava and rugelach, was listed in police files with other businesses that the NYPD described as "Syrian Locations of Concern." Police noted that the building is owned by a Syrian family, adding: "This location mostly sells Middle Eastern pastries, nuts, foreign newspapers and magazines."

But like many whose businesses were monitored, Ghassan Matli, 52, said he wishes the NYPD would stop by and talk to him so it would get its information right. The people who owned the store at the time of the report, for instance, were the grandchildren of Syrian immigrants. They had been raised as Catholics.

"If they need help, I will help them," said Matli, who is a Christian. "This is the last country we can go to for freedom and to live in freedom. So if they want, why not• Let them check."

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