The New York Police Department has secretly labeled entire mosques as terrorism organizations.

The designation has allowed police to use informants to record sermons and spy on imams, often without specific evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

NYPD Labeled Mosques Terrorism Organizations to Allow Bugging, Infiltration, AP Reports

Members of a Muslim congregation pray during a Jumu’ah prayer service at the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge mosque on Friday, Aug. 16, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP)

Designating an entire mosque as a terrorism enterprise means that anyone who attends prayer services is a potential subject of the investigation and fair game for surveillance.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD has opened at least a dozen “terrorism enterprise investigations” (TEI) into mosques. The TEI is a police tool intended to help investigate terrorist cells.

Many TEIs stretch for years, allowing surveillance to continue even though the NYPD has never criminally charged a mosque or Islamic organization with operating as a terrorism enterprise.

The NYPD declined to comment.

Details Emerge on Infiltration of Mosques and Arab-American Groups

It’s been known since 2012 while that the NYPD has been covertly investigating mosques and Muslims in and around New York City.

Now confidential police documents show in detail how the NYPD investigated countless innocent New York Muslims in an overall hunt for terrorists, putting information about them in secret police files, the AP reported.

NYPD Labeled Mosques Terrorism Organizations to Allow Bugging, Infiltration, AP Reports

A Muslim congregation prays during a Jumu’ah prayer service at the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge mosque on Friday, Aug. 16, 2013 in Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP)

“I have never felt free in the United States. The documents tell me I am right,” said Zein Rimawi, one of the leaders of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, after reviewing an NYPD document describing his mosque as a terrorist enterprise.

Rimawi, 59, came to the U.S. decades ago from the West Bank, the AP said.

“Ray Kelly, shame on him,” he said of the NYPD commissioner. “I am American.”

The aforementioned documents obtained by the Associated Press are part of a new book, “Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit and bin Laden’s Final Plot Against America” by AP reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, based on hundreds of previously unpublished police files and interviews with current and former NYPD, CIA and FBI officials.

More from the AP:

One confidential NYPD document shows police wanted to put informants in leadership positions at mosques and other organizations, including the Arab American Association of New York in Brooklyn, a secular social-service organization. [...]

NYPD Labeled Mosques Terrorism Organizations to Allow Bugging, Infiltration, AP Reports

NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly (AP)

The document, which appears to have been created around 2009, was prepared for Kelly and distributed to the NYPD’s debriefing unit, which helped identify possible informants.

Around that time, Kelly was handing out medals to the Arab American Association’s soccer team, Brooklyn United, smiling and congratulating its players for winning the NYPD’s soccer league.

“It creates mistrust in our organizations,” said Linda Sarsour, the AAA’s director and a Muslim born and raised in Brooklyn. “It makes one wonder and question who is sitting on the boards of the institutions where we work and pray.”

Rewriting Free Speech Rules

Before the NYPD could target mosques as terrorist organizations, it had to get the the rules changed in court concerning how police can monitor speech protected by the First Amendment.

Enter David Cohen, a former CIA executive who became NYPD’s deputy commissioner for intelligence in 2002; he argued that mosques could be used “to shield the work of terrorists from law enforcement scrutiny by taking advantage of restrictions on the investigation of First Amendment activity.”

So NYPD lawyers proposed the TEI. It allowed monitoring of political or religious speech whenever the “facts or circumstances reasonably indicate” that two or more people were involved in plotting terrorism or other violent crime, the AP reported.

The NYPD and FBI at Odds

While the NYPD believed the tactics were necessary to keep the city safe, the AP reveals it didn’t always see things eye to eye with the FBI. In August 2003, Cohen asked the FBI to bug the Masjid al-Farooq mosque, including its prayer room. Al-Farooq had a long history of radical ties, and  Omar Abdel Rahman—the blind Egyptian sheik convicted of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks—once preached briefly at Al-Farooq.

NYPD Labeled Mosques Terrorism Organizations to Allow Bugging, Infiltration, AP Reports

Omar Abdel Rahman—the blind Egyptian sheik convicted of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks. (Credit: Getty Images)

But even after the FBI refused to bug the mosque, the NYPD forged ahead; Cohen’s informants began to carry recording devices into targeted mosques, the AP says, adding that microphones were hidden in wristwatches and electronic key fobs.

“Every Muslim is a potential terrorist? It is completely unacceptable,” said Martin Stolar, one of the lawyers in the Handschu case. “It really tarnishes all of us and tarnishes our system of values.”

Other Must-Read Stories