WASHINGTON – House Democrats on Thursday urged the New York Police Department to purge its intelligence databases of information gleaned from its clandestine spying on Muslim neighborhoods.
They also criticized the Obama administration for offering tepid responses to questions about whether it endorses such tactics.
Lawmakers introduced a resolution Thursday calling for an end to NYPD programs that infiltrated mosques and monitored even innocent conversations in cafes and bookstores. Muslim business owners were included in police files, even with no allegations of wrongdoing.
The resolution has little chance of passing but it followed a heated debate Wednesday night over a House amendment that would have banned racial profiling by any department that receives federal money. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., introduced the amendment, saying wholesale surveillance has proven ineffective in disrupting terrorist plans.
"Contrary to the blanket assertions by some that the tactics have kept New York City safe, the NYPD failed to uncover two actual plots against New York City," Holt said, referring to attempted bombings in Times Square and the New York subway system.
That prompted a strong objection from Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., one of Capitol Hill's most vocal defenders of the NYPD.
"We should be here tonight giving the NYPD a medal," King said. "We sit here, 10 1/2 years after September 11, and the most effective law enforcement, counterterrorism unit in the country is being attacked?"
The NYPD says its tactics are all lawful and necessary to keep the city safe. Asked Thursday about what the lawmakers said, Mayor Michael Bloomberg responded: "Where do they live?"
"I don't think you'll find many elected officials here who want to look at their constituents and say, 'I want to stop what is perfectly legal, appropriate, has been vetted through the courts and everything else, a procedure to try to get as much information as we can from publicly available sources,'" he added.
It's unclear where the Obama administration stands. White House grants helps pay for the NYPD's programs but the White House says it has no control over how the money is used.
President Barack Obama's counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, recently declared his "full confidence that the NYPD is doing things consistent with the law." An anonymous White House official then issued a clarification to those remarks, saying Brennan wasn't referring to NYPD surveillance.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress and one of the lawmakers who introduced the resolution, said he understood the political difficulties the White House faces in wading into a debate over racial profiling and national security.
"But transformational leadership is about standing up and doing the right thing," he said.
Dozens of lawmakers have been asking the Justice Department for eight months to investigate the NYPD's tactics and determine whether they are legal. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, the top civil rights official at the department, has not answered questions about the matter. His spokeswoman has said attorneys are reviewing the requests to investigate.
Associated Press writer Samantha Gross in New York contributed to this report.