By Kimberly Dozier
WASHINGTON — The CIA said Tuesday it is investigating whether the agency broke the law by helping the New York Police Department build intelligence-gathering programs that monitored life in Muslim communities.
The CIA's new director, David Petraeus, told Congress on Tuesday that the agency's inspector general began investigating just before he took office just over one week ago. The agency's unprecedented cooperation with the New York police was part of an eight-month investigation by The Associated Press.
The AP found that police intelligence officers analyzed hundreds of mosques and student organizations, infiltrating dozens of them. Undercover officers eavesdropped in cafes and restaurants and wrote daily reports about what they overheard. The department also maintained a list of 28 countries that, along with "American Black Muslim," the department labeled "ancestries of interest."
A Central Intelligence Agency officer, Lawrence Sanchez, helped create and guide these programs. From 2002 to 2004, when these programs were being built, Sanchez was on the CIA payroll and maintained an office at both the police department and the CIA's offices in New York. The programs have continued with at least the tacit support of President Barack Obama, whose administration has repeatedly sidestepped questions about them.
The police department also sent a detective on a temporary assignment to the CIA, where he completed the agency's 17-week foreign espionage course. After that rare training, he then returned to New York to supervise intelligence investigations.
The CIA is prohibited from domestic spying. The NYPD, the CIA and Obama's counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, have said the relationship never crossed that line and said Americans expected such collaboration after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The U.S. director of national intelligence, James Clapper, echoed that sentiment Tuesday. He said he thought Americans' privacy had not been violated by the close relationship.
CIA spokeswoman Marie E. Harf said Tuesday that the recently launched investigation was a "preliminary review of the CIA's post-9/11 cooperation with the New York City Police Department."
Testifying in Congress, Petraeus said the CIA wants "to make sure we are doing the right thing."
Much of the NYPD's intelligence-gathering was conducted by a secret team called the Demographics Unit, which used plainclothes officers to help map and monitor ethnic communities in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The NYPD has denied that unit ever existed, despite documents and interviews showing otherwise.
Sanchez took a leave of absence from the CIA in 2004 to become a senior official in the New York Police Department Intelligence Division. But some in the CIA raised questions about the relationship, forcing him to choose in 2007 whether to remain with the CIA or the police. He left the police last year.
It's not clear whether the CIA inspector general will focus on the agency's past relationship with the police department or its current arrangement.
Recently, the CIA dispatched one of its most senior clandestine officers to the police department, where he serves as a special assistant to intelligence chief David Cohen, himself a retired senior CIA officer. The officer, whom the AP is not identifying because he remains undercover, twice served as station chief in the Middle East and has run a major division at CIA headquarters.
Officials have described the posting as a sabbatical, a chance for him to learn the management of other departments. They have said he is not operating in the same role as Sanchez.
Civil rights groups have urged the Justice Department to investigate the New York Police Department for what it said was racial profiling. The Justice Department has said it is reviewing the request. Under Attorney General Eric Holder, the department has stepped up enforcement of civil rights violations by police departments, but none of those cases involves national security investigations like the ones being conducted by the police department.
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Copyright 2011 Associated Press