By Malia Rulon Herman
House Democrats, led by Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., condemned the New York Police Department on Thursday for spying on Muslim neighborhoods, calling for the racial profiling to stop immediately and for the Justice Department to investigate.
The demands came in the form of a House resolution, which Holt and several colleagues introduced Thursday. Although the resolution has little chance of passage, it highlights an issue that has been the subject of intense public debate and puts pressure on the Obama administration to respond.
It also comes on the heels of a heated debate on the House floor late Wednesday over an amendment from Holt that would have ended federal funding to law enforcement agencies that engage in racial profiling.
"Racial, ethnic and religious profiling by police is not something taxpayer dollars should be spent for," Holt said, calling the practice "wrong" and "lazy."
"Contrary to the blanket assertions by some that the tactics have kept New York City safe, the NYPD failed to uncover two actual plots against New York City," Holt said, citing the attempted bombings in Times Square and the New York subway.
Holt's remarks prompted Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., to offer a passionate defense of the NYPD.
"We should be here tonight giving the NYPD a medal," King said. "We sit here, 10½ years after (the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks), and the most effective law enforcement, counterterrorism unit in the country is being attacked?"
The amendment to the spending bill for Commerce, Justice and other departments failed on a largely party-line, 232-193 vote, indicating how politically charged this issue is. In the New Jersey delegation, all Democrats voted for the amendment while all Republicans voted against it.
Tactics under fire
The NYPD has been criticized for running a domestic intelligence operation in which Muslim businesses, mosques and student groups have been placed under surveillance without cause. The Associated Press revealed details of the program in a series of articles that won the Pulitzer Prize.
The NYPD has defended its tactics as being legal and necessary to keep the city safe.
Groups that disagree include the American Civil Liberties Union, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, People for the American Way and the Arab American Institute.
"Treating mosques and ethnic businesses as suspect and monitoring Muslim students without evidence or allegations of criminal activity is unconstitutional and an affront to religious freedom," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the Washington legislative office of the ACLU.
Despite requests from Holt and dozens of other lawmakers, the Justice Department has yet to announce a formal investigation into the matter.
Comments made last month by White House counterterrorism official John Brennan further muddied the water when he declared his "full confidence that the NYPD is doing things consistent with the law." The White House later issued a correction, saying Brennan wasn't referring to the NYPD surveillance program.
"All of this has left me wondering whether the White House is taking this serious enough," Holt said.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress and one of the co-sponsors of Holt's resolution, said he understands the political challenges faced by the White House on this issue.
"Transformational leadership is about standing up and doing the right thing," he said.