The New York Police Department (NYPD) has secretly labeled entire mosques as terrorist organizations, a designation that allows police to use informants to record sermons and spy on imams, often without specific evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
Since the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD has opened at least a dozen "terrorism enterprise investigations" into mosques, according to interviews and confidential police documents. A TEI, as it is known, is a police tool intended to help investigate suspected terrorist cells.
Designating an entire mosque as a terrorism enterprise means that anyone who attends prayer services there is a potential subject of an investigation and fair game for surveillance.
Many TEIs stretch for years, allowing surveillance to continue even though the NYPD has never criminally charged a mosque or Islamic organization with operating as a terrorism enterprise.
The NYPD's spying program is detailed in a new book by Associated Press reporters.
The AP originally reported in 2011 that the NYPD was spying on Muslims and mosques around the city. The news agency won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting, and has continued to follow the story since then.
The documents show in detail how, in its hunt for terrorists, the NYPD investigated countless innocent New York Muslims and put information about them in secret police files. As a tactic, opening an enterprise investigation on a mosque is so potentially invasive that while the NYPD conducted at least a dozen, the FBI never opened one, according to interviews with federal law enforcement officials.
The NYPD did not limit its operations to collecting information on those who attended the mosques or led prayers. The department also sought to place people on the boards of New York's Islamic institutions to fill intelligence gaps.
One confidential NYPD document shows that police wanted to put informants in leadership positions at mosques and other organizations, including the Arab American Association of New York, a secular social-service organization in Brooklyn.
The executive director of the group has worked with city officials, including Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, a front-runner for mayor.
The disclosures come as the NYPD is fighting off lawsuits accusing it of engaging in racial profiling while combating crime. Earlier this month, a judge ruled that the department's use of the stop-and-frisk tactic was unconstitutional.
The American Civil Liberties Union and two other groups have sued, saying the Muslim spying programs are unconstitutional and make Muslims afraid to practice their faith without police scrutiny.
Both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly have denied those accusations. They say police do not unfairly target people but only follow leads.
"As a matter of department policy, undercover officers and confidential informants do not enter a mosque unless they are following up on a lead," Kelly wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal. "We have a responsibility to protect New Yorkers from violent crime or another terrorist attack -- and we uphold the law in doing so."
An NYPD spokesman declined to comment.
Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, said her group helps new immigrants adjust to life in the U.S. It was not clear whether the police were successful in their plans to place informants.
Sarsour, a Muslim who has met with Kelly many times, said she felt betrayed.
"It creates mistrust in our organizations," said Sarsour, who was born and raised in Brooklyn. "It makes one wonder and question who is sitting on the boards of the institutions where we work and pray."
Before the NYPD could target mosques as suspected terrorist groups, it had to persuade a federal judge to rewrite rules governing how police can monitor speech protected by the First Amendment.
The rules stemmed from a 1971 lawsuit, dubbed the Handschu case, after lead plaintiff Barbara Handschu, over how the NYPD spied on protesters and liberals during the Vietnam War era.
David Cohen, a former CIA executive who became the NYPD's deputy commissioner for intelligence in 2002, said the old rules didn't apply to fighting against terrorism.
Cohen told the judge that mosques could be used to "shield the work of terrorists from law enforcement scrutiny by taking advantage of restrictions on the investigation of First Amendment activity."
NYPD lawyers proposed the TEI, a new tactic that allowed officers to monitor political or religious speech whenever the "facts or circumstances reasonably indicate" that groups of two or more people were involved in plotting terrorism or other violent crime.
The judge rewrote the Handschu rules in 2003. In the first eight months under the new rules, the NYPD's Intelligence Division opened at least 15 secret terrorism enterprise investigations, documents show. At least 10 targeted mosques.
Doing so allowed police, in effect, to treat anyone who attends prayer services as a potential suspect. Sermons, ordinarily protected by the First Amendment, could be monitored and recorded.
Among the mosques targeted as early as 2003 was the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, in Brooklyn.
"I have never felt free in the United States. The documents tell me I am right," Zein Rimawi, one of the Bay Ridge mosque's leaders, said after reviewing an NYPD document describing his mosque as a terrorist enterprise.
Rimawi, 59, came to the U.S. decades ago from the West Bank. "Ray Kelly, shame on him," he said. "I am American."
The NYPD's desire to conduct surveillance put it at odds with federal authorities. Saying the practice would violate federal law, one FBI agent refused to bug a Brooklyn mosque, Masjid Al-Farooq, that has ties to a blind Egyptian sheik convicted of plotting to bomb New York landmarks. Police department informants started carrying surveillance equipment in car key fobs and wristwatches.
Even under a TEI, a prosecutor and a judge would have to approve bugging a mosque. But the informant taping was legal because New York law allows any party to record a conversation, even without consent from the other parties. As with the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, the NYPD never demonstrated in court that Al-Farooq was a terrorist enterprise, but that didn't stop the police from spying on the mosques for years.
Under the new Handschu guidelines, no one outside the NYPD could question the secret practice.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press