The New York Police Department monitored Muslim college students far more broadly than previously known, at schools far beyond the city limits, including the elite Ivy League colleges of Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, The Associated Press has learned.
Police talked with local authorities about professors 300 miles (480 kilometers) away in Buffalo and even sent an undercover agent on a whitewater rafting trip, where he recorded students' names and noted in police intelligence files how many times they prayed.
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Detectives trawled Muslim student websites every day and, although professors and students had not been accused of any wrongdoing, their names were recorded in reports prepared for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
Asked about the monitoring, police spokesman Paul Browne provided a list of 12 people arrested or convicted on terrorism charges in the United States and abroad who had once been members of Muslim student associations, which the NYPD referred to as MSAs.
Jesse Morton, who this month pleaded guilty to posting online threats against the creators of the animated TV show "South Park," had once tried to recruit followers at Stony Brook University on Long Island, Browne said.
Civil rights violations
"As a result, the NYPD deemed it prudent to get a better handle on what was occurring at MSAs," Browne said in an email. He said police monitored student websites and collected publicly available information, but did so only between 2006 and 2007.
"I see a violation of civil rights here," said Tanweer Haq, chaplain of the Muslim Student Association at Syracuse. "Nobody wants to be on the list of the FBI or the NYPD or whatever. Muslim students want to have their own lives, their own privacy and enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities that everybody else has."
In recent months, the AP has revealed secret programs the NYPD built with help from the CIA to monitor Muslims at the places where they eat, shop and worship. The AP also published details about how police placed undercover officers at Muslim student associations in colleges within the city limits; this revelation has outraged faculty and student groups.
Though the NYPD says it follows the same rules as the FBI, some of the NYPD's activities go beyond what the FBI is allowed to do.
Kelly and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg repeatedly have said that the police only follow legitimate leads about suspected criminal activity.
But the latest documents mention no wrongdoing by any students.
In one report, an undercover officer describes accompanying 18 Muslim students from the City College of New York on a whitewater rafting trip in upstate New York on April 21, 2008. The officer noted the names of attendees who were officers of the Muslim Student Association.
'I can't blame them'
"In addition to the regularly scheduled events (Rafting), the group prayed at least four times a day, and much of the conversation was spent discussing Islam and was religious in nature," the report says.
Praying five times a day is one of the core traditions of Islam.
Jawad Rasul, one of the students on the trip, said he was stunned that his name was included in the police report.
"It forces me to look around wherever I am now," Rasul said.
But another student, Ali Ahmed, whom the NYPD said appeared to be in charge of the trip, said he understood the police department's concern.
"I can't blame them for doing their job," Ahmed said. "There's lots of Muslims doing some bad things and it gives a bad name to all of us, so they have to take their due diligence."
City College criticized the surveillance and said it was unaware the NYPD was watching students.
Student groups were of particular interest to the NYPD because they attract young Muslim men, a demographic that terrorist groups frequently draw from. Police worried about which Muslim scholars were influencing these students and feared that extracurricular activities such as paintball outings could be used as terrorist training.
The universities included Yale; Columbia; the University of Pennsylvania; Syracuse; New York University; Clarkson University; the Newark and New Brunswick campuses of Rutgers; and the State University of New York campuses in Buffalo, Albany, Stony Brook and Potsdam; Queens College, Baruch College, Brooklyn College and La Guardia Community College.
Yale declined comment. The University of Pennsylvania did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Other colleges on the list said they worried the monitoring infringed on students' freedom of speech.
"Like New York City itself, American universities are admired across the globe as places that welcome a diversity of people and viewpoints. So we would obviously be concerned about anything that could chill our essential values of academic freedom or intrude on student privacy," Columbia University spokesman Robert Hornsby said in a written statement.
Danish Munir, an alumnus adviser for the University of Pennsylvania's Muslim Student Association, said he believes police are wasting their time by watching college students.
"What do they expect to find here?" Munir said. "These are all kids coming from rich families or good families, and they're just trying to make a living, have a good career, have a good college experience. It's a futile allocation of resources."
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