NEW YORK — Thirty-three civil rights groups from around the country complained to the New York attorney general Friday about police documents that showed the New York Police Department recommending increased surveillance of Shiite mosques based solely on their religion.
The letter urged Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to investigate NYPD's surveillance operations, revealed by an Associated Press investigation, which monitored entire neighborhoods and built databases about everyday life in Muslim communities.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have insisted that police only follow legitimate leads and do not conduct preventative surveillance in ethnic communities. A May 2006 report addressed to Kelly, however, recommended increased spying at mosques and an assessment of the region's Palestinian community to look for potential terrorists.
Even before the AP published the document, Kelly was under fire from Muslim groups who were angry that a controversial movie about Muslims, "The Third Jihad," was shown at NYPD training sessions. Kelly appears briefly in the movie.
A few dozen Muslims gathered near police headquarters Friday to protest the NYPD's tactics.
"Just the fact of knowing there is someone out there trying to listen to my conversations that can turn me into some kind of criminal, which I'm not, and exploiting my religion, it hurts," said Sondos Alsilwi, an 18-year-old history major at City College.
Schneiderman's office did not have a comment on the letter.
The Obama administration has made fighting homegrown terrorism a focus of its national security strategy but has repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether it endorses the NYPD's tactics. Tom Perez, the U.S. Justice Department's top civil rights prosecutor, has refused to even answer questions about the NYPD.
The 2006 intelligence report, entitled "US-Iran Conflict: The Threat to New York City," made a series of recommendations to Kelly, including: "Expand and focus intelligence collections at Shi'a mosques." It includes a list of mosques and community organizations stretching from southern New Jersey to Connecticut.
The NYPD's operating rules prohibit it from basing investigations on religion. The NYPD also says it follows FBI guidelines, which would prohibit many of the steps recommended in the report.
On Thursday, Kelly downplayed the significance of the 2006 document, calling it a "contingency plan" for military conflict between the U.S. and Iran. Such language does not exist anywhere in the document.
Fears of such a conflict were rising again Friday amid concerns in the Middle East that Israel was preparing a military strike on Iran. Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that an attack would only hurt the United States.
"A war itself will damage the U.S. 10 times over" in the region, "Khamenei said in a national broadcast Friday.
Iran is a majority Shi'a country, while most Muslims belong to the Sunni sect.
Bloomberg has said the NYPD doesn't even consider religion as part of its police work. Bloomberg spokesman Marc LaVorgna would not say whether the mayor still believes that.
News of the report has outraged Shi'a Muslims, some of whom left their home countries because of oppression there.
"For the Shia community in particular, we're at the ends of the barrel on both sides," Shabber Abbas, a 32-year-old medical student, as he knelt before prayer services at the Al-Mahdi Foundation mosque in Brooklyn, N.Y. The mosque appears on the NYPD's list.
At the Bait-ul-Qaim in Delran, N.J., another prayer hall on the list, mosque president Asad Sadiq said the NYPD's policy contrasted with that of the FBI, which has occasional meetings with him to discuss security issues.
He said he had a meeting on Wednesday with the FBI in which agents asked him about Iran and whether he knew anyone with connections there. He said typically these conversations are about Iran, but the FBI has also asked him to let them know if he hears anyone making radical statements.
Sadiq said the NYPD would be more than welcome in his mosque if they came in announced, like the FBI does.
"Just because we are the same religion doesn't mean we're going to stand up and harm the United States," Sadiq said. "It's really absurd."
Associated Press reporters Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman and Eileen Sullivan contributed to this article.
View the NYPD document: http://bit.ly/wYrAUX
Contact the Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations (at) ap.org