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WASHINGTON (AP) — Months after receiving complaints about the New York Police Department's surveillance of entire American Muslim neighborhoods, the Justice Department is just beginning a review to decide whether to investigate civil rights violations.
Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress the status of the review Tuesday.
The announcement bothered some Democrats, who said they were under the impression the Justice Department had been reviewing the matter since last late last year.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press show that the NYPD has built databases pinpointing where Muslims live, where they buy groceries, what Internet cafes they use and where they watch sports. Dozens of mosques and student groups have been infiltrated, and police have built detailed profiles of Moroccans, Egyptians, Albanians and other local ethnic groups. The NYPD surveillance extended outside New York City to neighboring New Jersey and Long Island and colleges across the Northeast.
Holder told Congress that police seeking to monitor activities by citizens "should only do so when there is a basis to believe that something inappropriate is occurring or potentially could occur."
Holder responded under questioning by Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., who as an infant was sent with his parents to a Japanese internment camp during World War II and has compared that policy to the NYPD's treatment of Muslims. The attorney general was on Capitol Hill to discuss the Justice Department's federal budget.
Holder did not suggest that a Justice Department investigation of the NYPD was imminent. Over the last six months, the AP has revealed the inner workings of secret programs of the NYPD, built with help from the CIA, to monitor Muslims.
"I don't know even if the program as it has been described in the news media was an appropriate way to proceed, was consistent with the way in which the federal government would have done these things," said Holder, who was born in the Bronx and described New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly as a personal friend. "I simply just don't know the answers to those questions at the beginning stages of this matter."
That surprised Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., one of the first lawmakers to ask the Justice Department to scrutinize the NYPD's operations.
"They very definitely gave me the sense that they were farther along in their investigation than just reviewing some mail," Holt said.
Honda said his goal Tuesday was to push the issue so that Holder pays more attention to what's going on in New York.