President Barack Obama's counterterrorism adviser and the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee are offering support for the New York Police Department after an Associated Press investigation revealed a secret police unit that monitored daily life inside Muslim communities.
Muslim civil liberties groups and a Brooklyn congresswoman have called on the Justice Department to investigate the NYPD for its Demographics Unit, which maintained a list of 28 countries that, along with "American Black Muslim," were considered "ancestries of interest." Nearly all were Muslim countries.
Undercover police officers known as "rakers" would then eavesdrop inside Muslim businesses and write daily reports as they kept an eye on mosques, religious schools and social clubs.
The White House had no comment on whether the Demographics Unit was at odds with its recent policy paper, which said authorities should build trusting relationships with Muslim communities and urged authorities not to single out or stigmatize particular ethnic or religious communities.
In an interview Wednesday, Obama's counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said he has been impressed with the "heroic job" the police department and its intelligence division have done to keep New Yorkers safe.
Asked whether he was aware of the Demographics Unit, he said: "I am aware of things that NYPD has been doing, in an exceptionally good way, to protect the citizens of New York City on a daily basis and understand that city and to identify individuals who are plotting to carry out attacks."
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, told the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association on Thursday that the NYPD's tactics should serve as a model for federal law enforcement. But he said the federal government is too politically correct and not innovative enough.
"You're doing the right thing," King said. "And I ask you to continue to do it because you're in the forefront in the war against terrorism. We are the No. 1 target."
Alejandro Beutel, an analyst with the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which has worked closely with the Obama administration, said the NYPD program makes it harder for groups like his to counter extremist views. One of the principles of the White House policy document released last month was that the government should not play into al-Qaida's narrative that the U.S. is at war with Islam.
"It clearly does not comport with the administration strategy and our organization's vision," Beutel said.
The NYPD has denied that the department has ever had anything called the Demographics Unit. Documents obtained by the AP describe the Demographics Unit in great detail, showing how the NYPD singled out minority neighborhoods for extra scrutiny.
The NYPD said it only follows leads. It does not simply trawl ethnic neighborhoods.
The issue has legal significance, since the NYPD says it follows the FBI's investigative rules and the FBI is prohibited from using undercover agents to simply roam through ethnic communities.
Rep. Yvette Clarke, a Democrat from Brooklyn who sits on King's committee, has called for a federal inquiry and said Americans would never tolerate broad surveillance programs in other ethnic communities.
The Demographics Unit and other NYPD intelligence programs were created in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as part of an unusual partnership with the police department and the CIA. The CIA dispatched a veteran officer, Lawrence Sanchez, to New York, where he guided and oversaw the programs.
The CIA is prohibited from spying domestically. U.S. officials familiar with the arrangement have described Sanchez's term as an unusual assignment born out of the tragedy of 9/11. Both the NYPD and CIA have said the counterterrorism collaboration is appropriate and what Americans expect from their government.
Brennan, who was the deputy executive director of the CIA when Sanchez was sent to New York, said the CIA always knew the line it could not cross while operating inside the U.S.
"I was intimately familiar with the support the CIA was providing to the NYPD in terms of Larry Sanchez's role," Brennan said. "And it was very clear what the person up there could and couldn't do."
Associated Press writer George Walsh in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.