NYPD infiltration of colleges raises privacy fears

Mohammad Shamsi Ali, an associate cleric at the Islamic Center of New York, said some student groups have been known to invite speakers to campus without vetting them first.

“Some MSA groups in some colleges are being influenced by Salafi tendencies because many of these students, they don’t know who the speakers are,” Shamsi Ali said. “They invite them to speak in the college, and they influence them. They influence the minds of the students.”

Police believed that the group at Queens College had a link to a member of Al-Muhajiroun, a Muslim organization that was banned in Saudi Arabia and Britain for condoning militant attacks.

In a few instances, NYPD detectives approached campus police for help, saying they were working narcotics or gang cases to win their cooperation and sometimes even access to records, the official said. Police used the records to identify students they were observing and get contact information, the official said.

The colleges may have broken the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal statute, if they handed over student records without the students’ consent, said Richard Rainsberger, a consultant on college privacy laws.

The punishment for such disclosures is severe: a school can lose all of its federal funding.

“That means every single federal dollar: the research funds, the federal loans, the Pell grants,” said Meg Penrose, an expert on the privacy act at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law.

U.S. Education Department spokesman David Thomas said the agency had not heard about the NYPD program. But he said colleges are generally barred from giving law enforcement agencies any student records without their consent unless police have a court order or subpoena.

Sometimes, school police even let the NYPD use campus buildings as a quiet, out-of-the-way place to interview informants after hours, the law enforcement official said.

By 2006 police had placed NYPD undercover agents at Brooklyn College and Baruch, according to the documents obtained by the AP. At Hunter, City College, Queens College, La Guardia and St. John’s, documents said there were “secondary” undercover officers. It was not clear from the documents if that meant the NYPD was relying on another agency’s undercover officers or if the NYPD was one of two agencies infiltrating the groups.

The documents show police were worried about “militant paintball trips” organized by Muslim students at Brooklyn College. The Justice Department has in the past accused would-be terrorists of using paintball games as a sort of paramilitary training. But current and former officials said there was no standard for what kind of paintball trips the NYPD considered militant.

An old website formerly used by the group shows photos from one of these trips to a paintball range in Jim Thorpe, Pa. An announcement for an upcoming trip gives strategy tips like separating players into offensive and defensive lines. It jokingly describes the “luxurious cheesebus” members will ride in and advises them to check “the back of your ‘Fruit of the Loom'” for equipment sizes.

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