By DAVID B. CARUSO and JOHN CHRISTOFFERSEN, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — The mayor faced off with the president of Yale University on Tuesday over an effort by the city's police department to monitor Muslim student groups for any signs that their members harbored terrorist sympathies.
The Associated Press revealed over the weekend that in recent years the New York Police Department has kept close watch on Muslim student associations across the Northeast. The effort included daily tracking of student websites and blogs, monitoring who was speaking to the groups and sending an undercover officer on a whitewater rafting trip with students from the City College of New York.
Yale President Richard Levin was among a number of academics who condemned the effort in a statement Monday, while Rutgers University and leaders of student Muslim groups elsewhere called for investigations into the monitoring.
"I am writing to state, in the strongest possible terms, that police surveillance based on religion, nationality, or peacefully expressed political opinions is antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community, and the United States," Levin wrote.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaking to reporters on Tuesday, dismissed those criticisms as baseless.
"I don't know why keeping the country safe is antithetical to the values of Yale," he said.
He said it was "ridiculous" to argue that there was anything wrong with officers keeping an eye on websites that are available to the general public.
"Of course we're going to look at anything that's publicly available in the public domain," he said. "We have an obligation to do so, and it is to protect the very things that let Yale survive."
Asked by a reporter if he thought it was a "step too far" to send undercover investigators to accompany students on rafting vacations, Bloomberg said: "No. We have to keep this country safe."
"It's very cute to go and blame everybody and say we should stay away from anything that smacks of intelligence gathering," he said. "The job of our law enforcement is to make sure that they prevent things. And you only do that by being proactive."
Bloomberg, an independent, added that he believed that police officers had respected people's privacy and obeyed the law.
The campus monitoring program was part of a broad effort by the NYPD, initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, to try to spot any burgeoning terror cells in the U.S. before they had a chance to act. The NYPD monitoring of college campuses included schools far beyond the city limits.
Police talked with local authorities about professors 300 miles away in upstate Buffalo. The undercover agent who attended the City College rafting trip recorded students' names and noted in police intelligence files how many times they prayed. 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.
Officers kept tabs on student groups at Yale; Columbia; The University of Pennsylvania; Syracuse; Rutgers; New York University; Clarkson University; 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.
Levin said Yale's police department did not participate in any monitoring by the NYPD and was unaware of it.
An NYPD spokesman, Paul Browne, explained the effort as an attempt to learn more about student organizations that could be ripe for infiltration by terror recruiters. He cited 12 people arrested or convicted on terrorism charges in the United States and abroad who had once been members of Muslim student associations, or MSAs.
He acknowledged that police monitored student websites and collected publicly available information but said law-abiding students have nothing to fear.
"Students who advertised events or sent emails about regular events should not be worried about a terrorism file being kept on them," he said. "NYPD only investigated persons who we had reasonable suspicion to believe might be involved in unlawful activities."