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White House helps pay for NYPD Muslim surveillance

Monday - 2/27/2012, 5:43pm  ET

By EILEEN SULLIVAN
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration said Monday it has no control over how the New York Police Department spends millions of dollars in White House grants that helped pay for NYPD programs that put entire American Muslim neighborhoods under surveillance. In New York, the police commissioner said he wouldn't apologize.

The White House has no opinion about how the grant money was spent, spokesman Jay Carney said. The Associated Press reported Monday that the White House money has paid for the cars that plainclothes NYPD officers used to conduct surveillance on Muslim neighborhoods and paid for computers that stored even innocuous information about Muslim college students, mosque sermons and social events.

The money is part of a little-known grant intended to help law enforcement fight drug crimes. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush and Obama administrations have provided $135 million to the New York and New Jersey region through the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, known as HIDTA. It's unclear exactly how much was spent on surveillance of Muslims because the HIDTA program has little oversight.

The AP confirmed the use of White House money through secret police documents and interviews with current and former city and federal officials. The AP also obtained electronic documents with digital signatures indicating they were created and saved on HIDTA computers. The HIDTA grant program is overseen by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Carney said the White House drug policy office has no authority to direct, manage or supervise any law enforcement operations, including the NYPD's surveillance of Muslims.

"This is not an administration program or a White House program," Carney said. "This is the New York Police Department."

The disclosure that the White House is at least partially paying for the NYPD's surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods complicates its efforts to stay out of the fray over the controversial counterterrorism programs. Carney described the Office of National Drug Control Policy as a policy office, but he did not say whether the White House sees the NYPD's programs as good policy.

In New York, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was again unapologetic. Kelly said that some local politicians who questioned the NYPD's methods were pandering to voters in upcoming elections, and said that others _ including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez and Newark Mayor Cory Booker _ were wrong to question the department.

"Not everybody is going to be happy with everything the police department does, that's the nature of our business," Kelly said. "But our primary mission, our primary goal is to keep this city safe, to save lives. That's what we're engaged in doing."

The Obama administration has pointedly refused to endorse or repudiate the NYPD programs it helps pay for. It remains unclear whether the White House knew how the NYPD was spending the grant money until the AP asked the White House about it last week.

"We make very clear that we consider Muslim Americans partners in the effort to combat, you know, radical extremism," Carney said Monday. "I think we've made that clear again and again. And that continues to be our position."

John Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, last year called the NYPD's efforts "heroic" but would not elaborate. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, whose department also gives grant money to the NYPD and is one of the lead federal agencies helping police build relationships with Muslims, has refused in recent months to discuss the police tactics. Tom Perez, the Justice Department's top civil rights lawyer, has repeatedly refused to answer questions about the NYPD.

New York's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, does not have the authority to investigate the NYPD, Schneiderman's spokesman said. The New York City council has also said it neither has the oversight authority nor expertise to investigate NYPD's counterterrorism programs.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union on Monday called for a federal investigation into the White House funds paying for some of the NYPD's counterterrorism activities. So far, the federal government has not decided to investigate the NYPD, despite multiple requests to do so.

Kelly acknowledged Monday that the department uses HIDTA money but would not say how it spends the money.

The White House HIDTA grant program was established at the height of the drug war to help police fight drug gangs and unravel supply routes. It has provided about $2.3 billion to local authorities in the past decade.

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