NEWARK, N.J. – In a rare public criticism of the New York Police Department, the top FBI official in New Jersey said Wednesday that the department's surveillance of Muslims in the state has hindered investigations and created "additional risks" in counterterrorism.
The monitoring of Muslims in Newark and across the state has damaged the public's trust in New Jersey law enforcement and jeopardized some of the relationships agents had sought to build in the community since 9/11, said Michael Ward, agent in charge of the FBI's Newark division.
"When people pull back cooperation, it creates additional risks, it creates blind spots," Ward told reporters at a press briefing that he called to address the FBI's role in the NYPD monitoring of Muslims, reported in a series of stories by The Associated Press. "It hinders our ability to have our finger on the pulse of what's going on around the state, and thus it causes problems and makes the job of the Joint Terrorism Task Force much, much harder."
Ward said the NYPD had worked effectively in the state multiple times on terror cases — "we have a great relationship with the NYPD" — citing the arrests last year of two New Jersey men who admitted to conspiring to join an al-Qaida affiliate. But he said he knew little about the department's intelligence operations in the state.
"When you have someone that's conducting a unilateral investigation and it's not being coordinated" with the terror task force, he said, "you run the risk of missing something, of not connecting the dots."
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne responded Wednesday by pointing to several cases worked in conjunction with New Jersey law enforcement, such as the June arrests of Mohamed Alessa and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, who admitted to planning to travel to Somalia to get training with a group with ties to al-Qaida.
"The NYPD has established strong ongoing relations in the Muslim community, and our intelligence gathering has led to the capture of the radical converts Almonte and Alessa in New Jersey," Browne said. He cited other cases where relations in the community have led to terror prosecutions, most notably a plot to bomb the Herald Square train station in New York in 2004.
A series of AP stories has detailed that the NYPD monitored mosques and Muslim-owned businesses in New Jersey, and how it prepared a report cataloging the location of Muslim-owned businesses and mosques in Newark. The report didn't describe any criminal activity or links to terrorism of anyone who was monitored.
New Jersey officials, including Gov. Chris Christie, have said the state wasn't told enough about the operation, although Newark police officials acknowledged that the NYPD told them they were operating in the state in 2007.
Muslim leaders in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and elsewhere have requested investigations into the NYPD's activities, and the U.S. Justice Department has said it is reviewing the issue.
Ward said the reports have made Muslims more hesitant to reach out to law enforcement and less trusting. At a Saturday meeting with New Jersey law enforcement officials, he said, several leaders who had traditionally had an open-door policy of cooperation asked how much the FBI knew of the NYPD's activities in the state. Ward said he planned to hold an open discussion Thursday at a Paterson mosque that had been identified as a target for NYPD surveillance.
"We're starting to see cooperation pulled back," Ward said. "People are concerned that they're being followed, they're concerned that they can't trust law enforcement, and it's having a negative impact.
"That's a problem; these are people that are our friends;" Ward said. "These are people that have embraced law enforcement, embraced the mission that we have in counter-terrorism, and you can see that the relationships are strained."
Ward's public rebuke of the department was rare in an organization that has had long-running behind-the-scenes tensions with the NYPD on counterterror operations. The tensions have grown ever since the NYPD mounted its own aggressive anti-terrorism effort after 9/11, including undercover investigations targeting potential homegrown threats.
Publicly, NYPD and federal officials have said they have a strong working relationship.
At a House subcommittee hearing Wednesday, FBI Director Robert Mueller praised New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly for doing "a remarkable job of protecting New York." Mueller also said that because of differences in NYPD and FBI guidelines for surveillance, he can't evaluate the NYPD's actions.
Browne and other city officials have said the FBI had guidelines that would have empowered agents to do exactly what NYPD officials did to track Muslims in New Jersey.
Ward told reporters he was aware that officers from the NYPD's intelligence division were working in the state, adding that it was known to most New Jersey law enforcement officials who work on counterterrorism issues. But Ward said that although he met with NYPD intelligence officials on a bimonthly basis, he wasn't briefed on the extent of the operations.
"The key point is we don't have awareness of everything that NYPD intelligence does in New Jersey," Ward said. "We have meetings with them, we get together with them almost twice a month in which we share information, but we don't have insight into what they are doing."
Christie echoed Ward's concerns when asked about it at a separate news conference.
"I think what he's getting at really is this secrecy. It's this unwillingness to work with New Jersey law enforcement," said Christie, a former federal prosecutor. "All of us should be working together to protect the lives of the people we are charged with protecting. All I'm asking for — and I think it's absolutely in line with the lessons we learned from Sept. 11 — is if you're going to come here to operate, do surveillance, put a sting in place, whatever it is, pick up the phone and call and let us know."
Associated Press writers Colleen Long in New York, Angela Delli Santi in Trenton, N.J., and Pete Yost in Washington contributed to this story.
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