Immigrant Arab businesses are seen on Steinway Street in Astoria, N.Y., Friday, Sept. 2, 2011. The New York Police Department has subjected American citizens to surveillance and scrutiny, not because of any wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity. Documents obtained by The Associated Press describe a secret program known as the Moroccan Initiative, which catalogued where people of Moroccan ancestry shopped, ate and prayed. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
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NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Police Department put American citizens under surveillance and scrutinized where they ate, prayed and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The documents describe in extraordinary detail a secret program intended to catalog life inside Muslim neighborhoods as people immigrated, got jobs, became citizens and started businesses. The documents undercut the NYPD's claim that its officers only follow leads when investigating terrorism.
It started with one group, Moroccans, but the documents show police intended to build intelligence files on other ethnicities.
Undercover officers snapped photographs of restaurants frequented by Moroccans, including one that was noted for serving "religious Muslims." Police documented where Moroccans bought groceries, which hotels they visited and where they prayed. While visiting an apartment used by new Moroccan immigrants, an officer noted in his reports that he saw two Qurans and a calendar from a nearby mosque.
It was called the Moroccan Initiative.
The information was recorded in NYPD computers, officials said, so that if police ever received a specific tip about a Moroccan terrorist, officers looking for him would have details about the entire community at their fingertips.
The documents show how New York's rich heritage as a place where immigrants traditionally have blended in and built their lives now clashes with today's New York, where police see blending in as one of the first priorities for would-be terrorists.
To prevent attacks, police monitored the path that generations of immigrants followed: getting an apartment, learning English, finding work, assimilating into the culture. Activities such as haircuts and gym workouts were transformed from mundane daily routines into police data points.
A U.S. citizen in Queens, for example, starts work each day at what police labeled "a known Moroccan barbershop."
The AP previously revealed the secret operations of the NYPD intelligence division as it mapped the Muslim community in and around New York, monitored life in ethnic neighborhoods and scrutinized mosques. The Moroccan Initiative was one of the division's projects.
Such programs began with help from the CIA under President George W. Bush and have continued with at least the tacit support of President Barack Obama, whose administration repeatedly has sidestepped questions about them. It is unclear whether New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg oversaw the programs. He has refused to comment directly about them.
In response to the AP's earlier stories, the CIA's inspector general is investigating whether its unusually close relationship with the NYPD was unlawful.
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne did not return messages seeking comment about the Moroccan Initiative. In an earlier email, he said the department was not involved in wholesale spying, but rather was trying to document the likely whereabouts of terrorists.
"The unit's personnel would try to establish, for example, what border crossing a terrorist entering New York would use, what flop house he'd use, what Internet cafe he'd frequent to communicate, etc.," he wrote.
It's unclear exactly when the initiative began and whether it continues in any form. Current and former officials told the AP that it started in response to the 2003 suicide bombings that killed 45 people in the Moroccan city of Casablanca and the 2005 train bombing in Madrid that was linked to Moroccan terrorists.
In early meetings, police were told there was no specific threat to New York from Moroccans, officials said, but they were instructed to gather intelligence on the Moroccan community because of concerns Moroccan terrorists might strike here too.
NYPD intelligence chief David Cohen, a former senior CIA officer, oversaw the program, current and former officials said. Many of the documents obtained by the AP were prepared for Police Commissioner Ray Kelly but because of the volume of such documents his office receives, it's unclear whether he read them.
New York City law prohibits police from using race, religion or ethnicity as "the determinative factor" for any law enforcement action. Civil liberties advocates have said that is so ambiguous it makes the law unenforceable. The NYPD has said intelligence officers do not use racial profiling or troll ethnic neighborhoods for information.
The documents obtained by the AP, many of which were marked "secret," include a list of "Moroccan Locations," a virtual tour of the city's Moroccan neighborhoods. Photos of local businesses were accompanied by notes from plainclothes officers, known as rakers, who quietly kept tabs on ethnic neighborhoods and eavesdropped on conversations.
"A lot of these locations were innocent," said an official involved in the effort, who like many others interviewed by the AP spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive police operations. "They just happened to be in the community."
Sometimes the notes recorded in police files were detailed, such as the officer who reported that a local sandwich shop was close to a mosque and said the store was closed during Friday prayers.
"The restaurant serves only Halal meat," the document said. "The majority of the customers are religious Muslims."
Halal meat is prepared under religious rules similar to kosher food.
Other businesses were described with fewer details. But in every case, the officers noted the ethnicity of the owners.