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FBI says NYPD monitoring damaged Muslim's trust

March 8, 2012 4:53:32 AM PST
New Jersey's top FBI official planned to continue efforts to repair relationships with the state's Muslim leaders he said had been jeopardized by revelations that the New York Police Department conducted surveillance of mosques and student organizations in the state.

Michael Ward, the agent in charge of the FBI's Newark division, said he planned to meet with worshippers at a mosque in Paterson Thursday evening that has been identified as a target of NYPD surveillance in documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Ward said Wednesday that news of the NYPD's monitoring of Muslims in New Jersey has damaged the good relationships law enforcement officials had worked hard to build in the community since 9/11.

The dispute laid bare the tensions between the FBI and NYPD that have existed for years. But it also proved how New York and neighboring New Jersey view police spying programs differently 10 years after the terrorist attacks.

In New York, polls show strong support for the NYPD and editorial pages have said broad surveillance is needed to protect the city. Just across the Hudson River, however, politicians have decried the NYPD's programs and newspapers have editorialized against them.

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. Muslim student groups at Rutgers University and other colleges throughout the northeast also were monitored. The report didn't describe any criminal activity or links to terrorism of any groups that were monitored.

Muslim leaders in New Jersey have been vocal in their criticism of the NYPD's activities, and were planning to hold a news conference Thursday afternoon to renew demands for the state attorney general and federal authorities to launch a formal investigation into the NYPD's activities.

Similar requests have been made by Muslim leaders in New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, and the U.S. Justice Department has said it is reviewing the issue.

Mustafa El-Amin, the spiritual leader, or imam, of Masjid Ibrahim in Newark, which was one of the mosques included in the NYPD's report, said Wednesday he was heartened by Ward's comments and said his mosque had always opened its doors to law enforcement and the FBI.

"As an imam in one of the masjid's under surveillance, I appreciate that he (Ward) has highlighted the seriousness of this issue, and the importance of trust in obtaining reliable information," he said. "Because we want to be safe as well - we most certainly understand safety issues - if there are radicals or extremist among us, we want to know as well."

Ward said his news briefing Wednesday was prompted by hearing from members of the Muslim community that people were now afraid to talk to law enforcement.

"When people pull back cooperation, it creates additional risks, it creates blind spots," Ward told reporters. "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 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.

Browne also 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.

New Jersey officials, including Gov. Chris Christie, have said the state wasn't told enough about the NYPD operation, although Newark police officials acknowledged that the NYPD told them they were operating in the state in 2007.

Ward said at a meeting Saturday with New Jersey law enforcement officials, several Muslim leaders who traditionally had an open-door policy of cooperation asked how much the FBI knew of the NYPD's activities in the state.

"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.

Ward said he planned to hold an open discussion of the issue at the meeting in Paterson.

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."

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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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