WASHINGTON – A Muslim civil rights group that has worked closely with the Obama administration to build better relationships with American Muslims is suing the New York Police Department over its surveillance programs.
Eight Muslims filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday in New Jersey to force the NYPD to end its surveillance and other intelligence-gathering practices that have targeted Muslims since the 2001 terrorist attacks. The lawsuit alleged that the NYPD's activities were unconstitutional because they focused on people's religion, national origin and race.
It is the first lawsuit to directly challenge the NYPD's surveillance programs that targeted entire Muslim neighborhoods, chronicling the daily life of where people ate, prayed and got their hair cut. The surveillance was the subject of series of stories by The Associated Press that revealed the NYPD intelligence division infiltrated dozens of mosques and Muslim student groups and investigated hundreds.
The Muslims suing the NYPD are represented by Muslim Advocates, a California-based civil rights group that meets regularly with members of the Obama administration. Its executive director, Farhana Khera, said she was disappointed that the Obama administration hasn't been more involved.
"We do not think that they've been given sufficient attention and attention in a speedy manner," Khera said. "We do think this is an immensely important issue to have the nation's largest police department targeting Americans based on religion. We do think it merits the attention of the federal government."
The White House said Wednesday that it would not comment on pending litigation.
It's unclear where the Obama administration stands on the NYPD programs. White House grants help 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.
One of the lawsuit's plaintiffs, Syed Farhaj Hassan, stopped attending a New Jersey mosque after learning it was listed in an NYPD file. The mosque, like and dozens of others along the East Coast and listed in NYPD files, was not linked to terrorism either publicly or in the confidential police documents.
Hassan, a specialist in the U.S. Army Reserve, said he worried that if his name or the name of one of his mosques turned up in a police intelligence dossier it could jeopardize his military security clearance or job prospects.
"Guilt by association is a career stopper," he said. "What happens when that name comes up when you're looking for a job?"
The NYPD commissioner, Raymond Kelly, declined to comment about the lawsuit Wednesday but noted that New Jersey's attorney general recently determined that the NYPD did not violate state laws in its monitoring of Muslim neighborhoods and organizations, and found there was no recourse for New Jersey to stop the NYPD from infiltrating Muslim student groups, video-taping mosque-goers or collecting their license plate numbers as they prayed.
No court has ruled that the NYPD programs were illegal. But the division operates without significant oversight: The New York City Council does not believe it has the expertise to oversee the intelligence division, and Congress believes the NYPD is not part of its jurisdiction even though the police department receives billions of dollars in federal funding each year.
Kelly has said his department is obligated to do this type of surveillance in order to protect New York from another 9/11. He has said the 2001 attacks proved that New Yorkers could not rely solely on the federal government for protection, and the NYPD needed to enhance its efforts.
The advocacy group, which is representing the plaintiffs for free, has a good and constructive relationship with the Obama administration, Khera said. She was the only representative from an American Muslim advocacy organization who was invited in 2009 to attend the White House iftar dinner, a Muslim tradition of breaking the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan, the group said. The organization also met at the White House in 2010 to discuss a Supreme Court vacancy. And the Justice Department invited the group to participate on a panel last year about confronting discrimination since 9/11.
The NYPD and New York officials have said the surveillance programs violated no one's constitutional rights, and the NYPD is allowed to travel anywhere to collect information. Officials have said NYPD lawyers closely review the intelligence division's programs.
Members of Congress and civil rights groups have urged the Justice Department to investigate the NYPD's practices. Federal investigations into police departments typically focus on police abuse or racial profiling in arrests. Since 9/11, the Justice Department has never publicly investigated a police department for its surveillance in national security investigations.
The NYPD has been limited by a court order in what intelligence it can gather on innocent people because of widespread civil rights abuses during the 1950s and 1960s. Lawyers in that case have questioned whether the post-9/11 spying violates that order. The lawsuit filed Wednesday is a separate legal challenge.
A George Washington University law professor, Jonathan Turley, said it would be a challenge to convince the government that the NYPD's practices were illegal because the courts and Congress have allowed more and more surveillance in the years since 9/11. But, he said, most of these questions have been handled in policy debates and not in the court systems.
Moiz Mohammed, a 19-year-old sophomore at Rutgers University, said he joined the lawsuit after reading reports that the NYPD had conducted surveillance of Muslim student groups at colleges across the Northeast, including his own.
"It's such an unfair thing going on: Here I am, I am an American citizen, I was born here, I am law abiding, I volunteer in my community, I have dialogues and good relationships with Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and the NYPD here is surveilling people like me?"
Mohammed said the revelations made him nervous to pray in public or engage in lively debates with fellow students — a practice he said he once most enjoyed about the college atmosphere.
Associated Press writers Samantha Henry in Newark, N.J., and David Caruso, Tom Hays and researcher Judith Ausuebel in New York contributed to this report.
Follow Eileen Sullivan on Twitter: (at)esullivanap