Three St. Louis residents are in custody for alleged election offenses.
The prosecutor says Jerrell Sherod, Rachelle Olive, and Andrew Schafer committed potential voting fraud. The allegations stem from a possible improper request for absentee ballots. Schafer faces the most severe charges, multiple election offenses and two counts of forgery.
Police started to investigate after they were contacted by the St. Louis County Board of Elections.
Designating an entire mosque as a terrorism enterprise means that anyone who attends prayer services there is a potential subject of an investigation and fair game for surveillance.
Since the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD has opened at least a dozen "terrorism enterprise investigations" into mosques, according to interviews and confidential police documents. The TEI, as it is known, is a police tool intended to help investigate terrorist cells and the like.
Many TEIs stretch for years, allowing surveillance to continue even though the NYPD has never criminally charged a mosque or Islamic organization with operating as a terrorism enterprise.
The documents show in detail how, in its hunt for terrorists, the NYPD investigated countless innocent New York Muslims and put information about them in secret police files. As a tactic, opening an enterprise investigation on a mosque is so potentially invasive that while the NYPD conducted at least a dozen, the FBI never did one, according to interviews with federal law enforcement officials.
The strategy has allowed the NYPD to send undercover officers into mosques and attempt to plant informants on the boards of mosques and at least one prominent Arab-American group in Brooklyn, whose executive director has worked with city officials, including Bill de Blasio, a front-runner for mayor.
The revelations about the NYPD's massive spying operations are in documents recently obtained by The Associated Press and part of a new book, "Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD's Secret Spying Unit and bin Laden's Final Plot Against America." The book by AP reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman is based on hundreds of previously unpublished police files and interviews with current and former NYPD, CIA and FBI officials.
The disclosures come as the NYPD is fighting off lawsuits accusing it of engaging in racial profiling while combating crime. Earlier this month, a judge ruled that the department's use of the stop-and-frisk tactic was unconstitutional.
The American Civil Liberties Union and two other groups have sued, saying the Muslim spying programs are unconstitutional and make Muslims afraid to practice their faith without police scrutiny.
Both Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly have denied those accusations. Speaking Wednesday on MSNBC's Morning Joe, Kelly reminded people that his intelligence-gathering programs began in the wake of 9/11.
"We follow leads wherever they take us," Kelly said. "We're not intimidated as to wherever that lead takes us. And we're doing that to protect the people of New York City."
The NYPD did not limit its operations to collecting information on those who attended the mosques or led prayers. The department sought also to put people on the boards of New York's Islamic institutions to fill intelligence gaps.
One confidential NYPD document shows police wanted to put informants in leadership positions at mosques and other organizations, including the Arab American Association of New York in Brooklyn, a secular social-service organization.
Linda Sarsour, the executive director, said her group helps new immigrants adjust to life in the U.S. It was not clear whether the department was successful in its plans.
The document, which appears to have been created around 2009, was prepared for Kelly and distributed to the NYPD's debriefing unit, which helped identify possible informants.
Around that time, Kelly was handing out medals to the Arab American Association's soccer team, Brooklyn United, smiling and congratulating its players for winning the NYPD's soccer league.
Sarsour, a Muslim who has met with Kelly many times, said she felt betrayed.
"It creates mistrust in our organizations," said Sarsour, who was born and raised in Brooklyn. "It makes one wonder and question who is sitting on the boards of the institutions where we work and pray."
Before the NYPD could target mosques as terrorist groups, it had to persuade a federal judge to rewrite rules governing how police can monitor speech protected by the First Amendment.
The rules stemmed from a 1971 lawsuit, dubbed the Handschu case after lead plaintiff Barbara Handschu, over how the NYPD spied on protesters and liberals during the Vietnam War era.
David Cohen, a former CIA executive who became NYPD's deputy commissioner for intelligence in 2002, said the old rules didn't apply to fighting against terrorism.
Cohen told the judge that mosques could be used "to shield the work of terrorists from law enforcement scrutiny by taking advantage of restrictions on the investigation of First Amendment activity."
NYPD lawyers proposed a new tactic, the TEI, that allowed officers to monitor political or religious speech whenever the "facts or circumstances reasonably indicate" that groups of two or more people were involved in plotting terrorism or other violent crime.
The judge rewrote the Handschu rules in 2003. In the first eight months under the new rules, the NYPD's Intelligence Division opened at least 15 secret terrorism enterprise investigations, documents show. At least 10 targeted mosques.
Doing so allowed police, in effect, to treat anyone who attends prayer services as a potential suspect. Sermons, ordinarily protected by the First Amendment, could be monitored and recorded.
Among the mosques targeted as early as 2003 was the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge.
"I have never felt free in the United States. The documents tell me I am right," Zein Rimawi, one of the Bay Ridge mosque's leaders, said after reviewing an NYPD document describing his mosque as a terrorist enterprise.
Rimawi, 59, came to the U.S. decades ago from the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
"Ray Kelly, shame on him," he said. "I am American."
The NYPD believed the tactics were necessary to keep the city safe, a view that sometimes put it at odds with the FBI.
In August 2003, Cohen asked the FBI to install eavesdropping equipment inside a mosque called Masjid al-Farooq, including its prayer room.
Al-Farooq had a long history of radical ties. Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian sheik who was convicted of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks, once preached briefly at Al-Farooq. Invited preachers raged against Israel, the United States and the Bush administration's war on terror.
One of Cohen's informants said an imam from another mosque had delivered $30,000 to an al-Farooq leader, and the NYPD suspected the money was for terrorism.
But Amy Jo Lyons, the FBI assistant special agent in charge for counterterrorism, refused to bug the mosque. She said the federal law wouldn't permit it.
The NYPD made other arrangements. Cohen's informants began to carry recording devices into mosques under investigation. They hid microphones in wristwatches and the electronic key fobs used to unlock car doors.
Even under a TEI, a prosecutor and a judge would have to approve bugging a mosque. But the informant taping was legal because New York law allows any party to record a conversation, even without consent from the others. Like the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, the NYPD never demonstrated in court that al-Farooq was a terrorist enterprise but that didn't stop the police from spying on the mosques for years.
And under the new Handschu guidelines, no one outside the NYPD could question the secret practice.
Martin Stolar, one of the lawyers in the Handschu case, said it's clear the NYPD used enterprise investigations to justify open-ended surveillance. The NYPD should only tape conversations about building bombs or plotting attacks, he said.
"Every Muslim is a potential terrorist? It is completely unacceptable," he said. "It really tarnishes all of us and tarnishes our system of values."
Al-Ansar Center, a windowless Sunni mosque, opened in Brooklyn several years ago, attracting young Arabs and South Asians. NYPD officers feared the mosque was a breeding ground for terrorists, so informants kept tabs on it.
One NYPD report noted that members were fixing up the basement, turning it into a gym.
"They also want to start Jiujitsu classes," it said.
The NYPD was particularly alarmed about Mohammad Elshinawy, 26, an Islamic teacher at several New York mosques, including Al-Ansar. Elshinawy was a Salafist - a follower of a puritanical Islamic movement - whose father was an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center attacks, according to NYPD documents.
The FBI also investigated whether Elshinawy recruited people to wage violent jihad overseas. But the two agencies investigated him very differently.
The FBI closed the case after many months without any charges. Federal investigators never infiltrated Al-Ansar.
"Nobody had any information the mosque was engaged in terrorism activities," a former federal law enforcement official recalled, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the investigation.
The NYPD wasn't convinced. A 2008 surveillance document described Elshinawy as "a young spiritual leader (who) lectures and gives speeches at dozens of venues" and noted, "He has orchestrated camping trips and paintball trips."
The NYPD deemed him a threat in part because "he is so highly regarded by so many young and impressionable individuals."
No part of Elshinawy's life was out of bounds. His mosque was the target of a TEI. The NYPD conducted surveillance at his wedding. An informant recorded the wedding and police videotaped everyone who came and went.
"We have nothing on the lucky bride at this time but hopefully will learn about her at the service," one lieutenant wrote.
Four years later, the NYPD was still watching Elshinawy without charging him. He is now a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit against the NYPD.
"These new NYPD spying disclosures confirm the experiences and worst fears of New York's Muslims," ACLU lawyer Hina Shamsi said. "From houses of worship to a wedding, there's no area of New York Muslim religious or personal life that the NYPD has not invaded through its bias-based surveillance policy."
U.S. intelligence agencies are preparing a report laying out the evidence against Assad's government in last week's alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians. The classified version would be sent to key members of Congress and a declassified version would be released publicly.
The White House says it's already convinced, however, and is rounding up support from international partners while planning a possible military response.
"If there is action taken, it must be clearly defined what the objective is and why" and based on "clear facts," said one of the senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss internal deliberations publicly.
The official said the administration is considering more than a single set of military strikes and "the options are not limited just to one day" of assault.
In broad terms, the U.S. and international goals in striking Syria would be to damage the Syrian government's military and weapons to make it difficult to wage chemical attacks, and to make Assad think twice about using such weapons in the future. Such a strike likely would be led by low-flying cruise missiles fired from any of four U.S. Navy destroyers off Syria's coast.
The manner and timing of Syria's response are among the so-called "next day" questions that the administration is still thinking through as it prepares a possible military action. No additional U.S. defensive weapons have been deployed in the region in anticipation of Syria reprisals, the official said. The U.S. already has Patriot anti-missile batteries in Jordan and Turkey.
The other senior U.S. official said the administration has determined it can contain any potential Syrian military response in the event that President Barack Obama orders a U.S. attack.
Both officials were granted anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations on complex questions that surround crafting a response to the Aug. 21 attack in which hundreds of Syrian civilians were killed.
In Congress, which is in summer recess, members from both parties have expressed reservations about a rush toward launching a military action without congressional approval. On Wednesday, Washington Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, cautioned that an attack might be ineffective and draw the United States into the Syrian civil war.
"Simply lashing out with military force under the banner of 'doing something' will not secure our interests in Syria," Smith said in a statement.
In the House, 69 Republicans and 13 Democrats have signed a letter to Obama demanding that he seek congressional authorization for military action against Syria. The letter written by Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., argues that intervention without a direct threat to the United States and without Congress' approval would be unconstitutional.
The administration in recent days has made clear it believes it must take punitive action against Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons, which are banned by international convention. But the senior officials' comments Wednesday made clear that questions about using military force in this circumstance are still being worked out.
The officials said diplomatic and legal issues also are still being discussed internally.
"If any action is taken it will not be taken until all these pieces are in place: the legal issues, the international piece, the consequences thought through, the facts and everything that needs to be tied together," the first senior official said.
The official did not go into detail. Questions may include to what degree military strikes would prevent Assad from using poison gas in the future, and how to respond if he does. The administration also is concerned that if Assad is not punished, dictatorial leaders of other nations in possession of chemical weapons, like North Korea, might see the failure to act as a sign that they could get away with using the weapons.
In Israel, a close U.S. ally in the Middle East, the military and citizens were preparing for what officials said was a slim possibility of a retaliatory attack by Syria after a U.S. strike.
Administration officials have said Assad's actions posed a direct threat to U.S. national security, providing Obama with a potential legal justification for launching a strike without authorization from the United Nations or Congress. However, officials did not detail how the U.S. was directly threatened by an attack contained within Syria's borders. Nor have they yet presented concrete proof that Assad was responsible.
Assad has denied using chemical weapons, calling the allegations "preposterous."
"Allowing the use of chemical weapons on a significant scale to take place without a response would present a significant challenge to, threat to, the United States' national security," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.
The U.S. and its international partners were unlikely to undertake military action before Thursday. That's when British Prime Minister David Cameron will convene an emergency meeting of Parliament, where lawmakers are expected to vote on a motion clearing the way for a British response.
The prime minister's office said Wednesday that it will put forward a resolution to the U.N. Security Council condemning the Syrian government for the alleged chemical attack.
Obama and Cameron spoke Tuesday, and a Cameron spokesman said the two leaders agreed that a chemical attack had taken place, and that the Assad regime was responsible.
Also Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden became the highest-ranking U.S. official to publicly charge that Assad's government fired chemical weapons last week near Damascus.
"There's no doubt who is responsible for this heinous use of chemical weapons in Syria: the Syrian regime," Biden said.
Ahead of any strike, the U.S. also planned to release additional intelligence it said would directly link Assad to the attack in the Damascus suburbs. Syrian activists said hundreds of people were killed in the attack. A U.S. official said the intelligence report was expected to include "signals intelligence" — information gathered from intercepted communications.
Even before releasing that information, U.S. officials said Assad was culpable in the attack, based on witness reports, information on the number of victims and the symptoms of those killed or injured, and intelligence showing the Syrian government has not lost control of its chemical weapons stockpiles.
___ AP National Security Writer Robert Burns reported from Bander Seri Begawan, Brunei. Lolita C. Baldor and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.
___ Follow Julie Pace on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jpaceDC
Fear of a dramatic escalation in the two-and-a-half-year conflict prompted some 6,000 Syrians to flee into Lebanon over a 24-hour period, or more than six times the average daily flow.
A jittery Israel ordered a special call-up of reserve troops Wednesday as residents lined up at gas-mask distribution centers, preparing for possible hostilities with Syria.
A week after the purported chemical attack on rebel-held areas outside Damascus, momentum has been building for a possible strike by the U.S. and its allies against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon however said that no action should be taken until the U.N. chemical weapons inspectors finish their investigation.
"Let them conclude ... their work for four days and then we will have to analyze scientifically" their findings and send a report to the U.N. Security Council, he said Wednesday from The Hague. The U.N. said the analysis would be done "as quickly as possible."
At the same time, Syria's main allies Russia and Iran warned of dire consequences for the region if a military intervention is launched.
U.S. leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, have charged that Assad's government fired deadly chemical weapons near Damascus last week that, according to the group Doctors Without Borders, have killed 355 people.
Syria, which sits on one of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, has denied the charges.
The U.S. has not presented concrete proof of Syrian regime involvement in an alleged chemical weapons attack, and U.N. inspectors have not endorsed the allegations — though the U.N. envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said Wednesday that evidence suggests some kind of "substance" was used that killed hundreds on Aug. 21.
On Wednesday, the U.N. inspectors visited the eastern Damascus suburbs of Mleeha and Zamalka, activists said. Amateur video showed a convoy of five cars with U.N. markings, followed by armed rebels in pickups.
The video showed the inspectors visiting a clinic and interviewing a man through a translator. Two inspectors were present as a nurse drew blood from a man lying on an exam table. One of the experts is heard in the video saying he and his team members have collected blood, urine and hair samples.
The videos appeared consistent with other AP reporting, including Skype interviews with anti-regime activists.
One activist said the team took hair and skin samples of five suspected victims in Zamalka during a 90-minute visit. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of regime reprisals.
The U.N. team in Syria did not issue a statement about Wednesday's trip.
The U.N.'s Ban, meanwhile, pleaded for more time to give diplomacy another chance to end the conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people.
Marking the centenary of a venue for peaceful conflict resolution, he said: "Here in the Peace Palace, let us say: Give peace a chance. Give diplomacy a chance. Stop fighting and start talking."
Britain was to turn to the Security Council later Wednesday, with a resolution seeking to condemn the Syrian government for the alleged attack. Britain would seek backing for "necessary measures to protect civilians" in Syria under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, the office of Prime Minister David Cameron said. Military force is one of the options that can be authorized, but that possibility faces a likely veto from Assad-ally Russia.
A French diplomatic official said the British resolution has virtually no chance of passing, but is being introduced to show that all diplomatic steps were being exhausted. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to disclose details of the deliberations.
Ban said the Security Council, whose permanent members are bitterly divided over Syria, must not go "missing in action."
The growing fear of escalation sent wider ripples across the region.
Lebanese security officials in the country's Bekaa Valley near the border with Syria said at least 6,000 Syrians have crossed into Lebanon in the past 24 hours through the main Masnaa border crossing, including an estimated 4,000 on Wednesday.
The normal daily rate is 500 to 1,000 Syrian refugees coming to Lebanon, depending on the level of fighting.
Witnesses said they saw long lines of cars packed with families and belongings at the crossing. There was also traffic in the other direction — a security official said around 2,000 crossed into Syria on Wednesday — but many of them said they were going in to evacuate relatives from Syria.
Um Ahmad, 45, crossed to Lebanon with her five children Wednesday, fearing U.S. strikes on Damascus.
"Isn't it enough, all the violence and fighting that we already have in the country, now America wants to bomb us, too?" she said, declining to give her full name for security concerns.
Her husband said they have no one in Lebanon but came anyway because of their children. "What will we do here, where will we go? I don't know — but hopefully we'll be safe."
Nearly 2 million Syrians have fled their country since the crisis began in March 2011, and millions more are displaced inside Syria.
In Israel, the government ordered a "limited" call-up of reserve units to beef up civil defense preparations and to operate air-defense units near the border. Officials said the call-up is anticipated to bring in "hundreds" of troops.
Israel fears that Syria may respond by attacking the Jewish state, a close American ally. While Israeli officials believe the chances of a Syrian strike remain slim, people were clearly preparing for the possibility.
Large crowds lined up at gas-mask distribution centers. Maya Avishai of the Israeli postal service, which oversees gas mask distribution, said demand has tripled in recent days. About five million Israelis, roughly 60 percent of the population, now have gas masks, she said.
Jordan, meanwhile, said it will not be used as a launching pad for attacks on Syria and the kingdom favors a diplomatic solution to the crisis. A U.S.-led strike would involve cruise missile attacks from the sea, which would not need to cross or make use of Jordanian territory.
But the remarks underline the U.S. ally's efforts to avoid further friction with its larger neighbor for fear that Assad or his Iranian backers could retaliate.
The remarks come a day after Jordan hosted a meeting of top commanders from Western and Middle Eastern countries, including some that are likely to participate in a military action.
"Jordan will not be a launching pad for any military action against Syria," said Information Minister Mohammad Momani.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement that any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and a threat to international peace and security.
He stopped short, however, of squarely putting the responsibility on the Assad regime, citing only "information available from a wide variety of sources" as pointing to the Syrian regime as being behind the attack.
Two of Syria's staunchest backers, Iran and Russia, warned of dire consequences if the U.S. and its allies attack in Syria.
Such strikes "will lead to the long-term destabilization of the situation in the country and the region," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Wednesday that attacking Syria would be catastrophic for the entire Middle East.
"Intervention of foreign and extra-regional powers in a country has no result other than sparking fire," Iran's state TV quoted Khamenei as saying. "Waging a war is like a spark in a gunpowder store ... its dimensions and consequences can't be predicted."
___ Laub reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Yasmine Saker and Zeina Karam in Beirut, John Heilprin in Geneva, Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, Mike Corder at The Hague, Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem, Juergen Baetz in Brussels, Gregory Katz in London and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed reporting.