NEW YORK // Rights groups have taken the New York Police Department to court over its secret spy operation targeting Muslim communities.
The lawsuit comes amid outrage over Washington's sweeping surveillance programmes. It asks a federal judge to order the largest police department in the country to cease surveillance and religious profiling of Muslims and the destruction of records unrelated to specific criminal cases created as a result of the spying. It also calls for the creation of an independent monitor to oversee the NYPD's intelligence work.
"When a police department turns law-abiding people into suspects because they go to a mosque and not a church or a synagogue, it violates our Constitution's guarantees of equality and religious freedom," said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberty Union's National Security Project, one of the groups behind the legal action. "No one questions that the NYPD has a job to do, but spying on innocent New Yorkers because of their religion is a wrong and ineffective way to do it."
After the September 11 attacks, the NYPD, with help from the CIA, created a secret unit tasked with infiltrating and mapping the social and religious landscape of Muslim enclaves in New York and neighbouring states in an effort to prevent terrorist plots, even when there was no suspicion of wrongdoing.
The department sent undercover officers and paid informants, described in leaked documents as "mosque crawlers", to spy on more than 250 mosques, as well as university student associations, community organisations and businesses, including restaurants and barbershops.
The so-called Demographics Unit was uncovered through a series of stories by the Associated Press beginning in 2011, and according to a former police official, the unit was modelled on Israeli intelligence tactics in the West Bank.
The suit claims that these tactics deprive Muslims of equal protection under the law and the right to practise their religion freely. "The effects have been devastating and sweeping," said Diala Shamas, an attorney with the City University of New York who works on post-9/11 legal rights issues and is a co-counsel in the suit.
The spy programme has had a chilling effect on civic participation by Muslims, especially on campuses, and has sewn distrust at mosques. "People say they feel uncomfortable going, or if they do they limit their activities and don't get involved in community activities," Ms Shamas said.
The plaintiffs include two imams whose mosques were the subjects of the surveillance and a Brooklyn student, Asad Dandia, 20, whose charity, Fesabeelillah Services of NYC (FSN), was infiltrated by an undercover informant.
The informant, then 19-year-old Shamiur Rahman, had approached Mr Dandia last year via Facebook saying he was interested in getting involved in Mr Dandia's charity to become a better Muslim. Over the course of seven months, the two became close and Mr Rahman had dinner with the Dandia family on multiple occasions, even spending the night in their house.
"Rahman would ask everyone he met for their phone number, often within minutes of meeting them. He also often tried to take photos with or of people he met through me," Mr Dandia wrote on the ACLU website.
When the AP reports came out, most of the volunteers at the charity quit out of fear of being spied on, and last June FSN closed its doors permanently.
Soon after, Mr Rahman admitted to Mr Dandia that he had been spying on the group. "I was terrified and I was afraid for my family, especially for my younger sister," Mr Dandia said last week after the suit was filed. "I was shocked that the police who were supposed to protect and serve me were spying on me, although I did nothing wrong."
The suit was filed against Michael Bloomberg, the New York mayor, the police commissioner Raymond Kelly and deputy commissioner of intelligence David Cohen.
Mr Cohen, a former CIA officer, was hired by the NYPD in 2002 to bolster its counter-terrorism capabilities and is thought to have spearheaded the controversial intelligence tactics.
On Thursday, a newly declassified CIA inspector general's report revealed that the NYPD has had four CIA agents embedded with it to help conduct surveillance since the September 11 attacks. At least some of the officers, the report found, were still on the CIA payroll at the time of their work for the NYPD. The CIA is prohibited from spying on domestic targets.
The report's author, CIA inspector general David Buckley, found that "the risks associated with the agency's relationship with the NYPD were not fully considered and that there was inadequate direction and control by the agency managers responsible for the relationship", though he did not say that they were illegal.
The NYPD defended its relationship with the CIA, with a spokesman telling the New York Times, "We're proud of our relationship with the CIA".
The department has also long defended its surveillance tactics. After the lawsuit was filed on June 18, a top city lawyer, Celeste Koeleveld, said in a statement: "The NYPD's strategic approach to combating terrorism is legal, appropriate and designed to keep our city safe … Our results speak for themselves, with New York being the safest big city in America and the police having helped thwart several terrorist plots in recent years."
But last year, the commanding officer of the intelligence unit, Thomas Galati, was forced to testify during a separate lawsuit about the programme in court and admitted that it never produced a single lead that led to a potential terrorist plot.
Ms Shamas said she hopes the debate around the National Security Agency's domestic spying programme will bring more public attention to what she says is the NYPD's unconstitutional surveillance practices.
"It's difficult for what is happening with Muslims to resonate with the broader population, but what happened with the NSA news is that suddenly more Americans are thinking about the consequences surveillance has," she said.
"That's a whole other level."