NEW YORK—Top Republican candidate for mayor of New York Joe Lhota defended the New York Police Department’s spying at mosques after an Associated Press report Wednesday raised questions about the practice. Lhota, the recent head of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, answered a question about the AP article at the Republican mayoral debate on Wednesday night.
Terrorism is one of the few issues that make the New York mayoral race of national, not just local, interest. The city’s future mayor will oversee a police department that works nationally, internationally, and in conjunction with federal agencies to prevent terrorism. The NYPD says it has thwarted 16 terror plots since 9/11.
The AP article, in unveiling classified NYPD documents, said that the police had opened more than a dozen surveillance operations in mosques since 2001. The AP report added that the NYPD had designated the mosques as terrorism organizations in order to give officers authority to spy on activities within the facilities.
“We follow leads wherever they take us,” Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said in response to the article, in an interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “We’re doing that to protect the people of New York City.” He added that mosques shouldn’t be designated as terrorist organizations, but said law enforcement had properly investigated within the bounds of the law.
Lhota said AP’s critical report was “ginned up” and that the NYPD’s practices were fully within the law and court precedent.
Matt Apuzzo, one of the writers of the article, responded in a tweet: “Like NSA phone spying, biggest issue on NYPD mosque programs is not legality. Rather, shows us what we’ve allowed and made legal since 9/11.” The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the police department over the surveillance of mosques.
Law enforcement typically investigates activities at mosques because of terrorist money or recruiting coming through the institutions. The AP article portrays the NYPD as excessively invasive in its surveillance, even bugging a wedding. It depicts the NYPD and the FBI as at odds over the practice of bugging mosques. In one 2003 incident the FBI reportedly refused to bug a mosque where an imam was suspected of delivering money for terrorism, so the NYPD bugged the mosque on its own. The article doesn’t reveal what the result of the NYPD’s investigation was. It was not clear from the article whether intelligence from the mosque-spying program played a role in thwarting terror attacks against New York since 2001.
The top Democratic candidate for mayor, Bill de Blasio, called the AP report “deeply troubling.” A new Quinnipiac poll shows de Blasio surging ahead of the other candidates, so far in front that he may avoid a runoff. De Blasio has indicated he would not keep Kelly as police commissioner if elected. His closest rival, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, supports Kelly as the commissioner, but she has criticized some of his policies. Quinn hasn’t yet commented on the AP article.
President Obama has reportedly considered Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security.
Lhota is likely to win the Republican primary; he has led polls for months, though John Catsimatidis, the billionaire CEO of the Gristedes grocery chain, doesn’t trail him by much. George McDonald, the founder the Doe Fund, a nonprofit organization for the homeless, trails by a lot. The debate Wednesday night showed why Lhota is in the lead: He had a succinct, detailed answer to each question, playing up his reputation as the most experienced at managing city affairs. His two challengers were more disorganized. McDonald repeatedly deflected questions. Catsimatidis seemed woefully unprepared: When the moderator asked what his response would be to a chemical attack on the city, he said he would have a plan and execute it.
The primaries are set for Sept. 10, and the general election takes place Nov. 5. Democratic voters outnumber Republicans about seven to one in the city, but some analysts have not discounted Lhota’s chances in November because of a general ambivalence toward the Democratic candidates.