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NYPD spying reports ‘disturb’ attorney general

By Hannan Adely and Herb Jackson, The Record (Hackensack N.J.) –

HACKENSACK, N.J. — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday called reports of New York police surveillance of Muslim communities outside the city “disturbing” and said the activity is under “active review,” heightening a rare public dispute among some of the nation’s top law-enforcement agencies.

Holder’s statements before a congressional subcommittee, prodded by questions from Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, came a day after a top FBI official in New Jersey publicly rebuked the police operations.

Michael Ward, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Newark division, summoned reporters to his office for a press conference Wednesday at which he charged that the New York Police Department’s actions eroded cooperation from Muslims and undermined the FBI’s ability to safeguard against terrorism.

Holder’s comments, on a day when an array of religious groups gathered at a Jersey City college to publicly condemn the NYPD spying program, kicked the storm up to Washington, indicating how volatile the dispute has become as it pits a desire to protect the public from terrorism against civil liberties concerns.

“It’s certainly extremely rare in the history of the FBI to criticize the local police department for any other reason than the arrest of a local police chief or corruption,” Lawrence Sherman, professor of criminology at the University of Maryland, said about Ward’s public remarks.

Sherman said the clash over surveillance follows years of tension between the FBI and the NYPD after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which prompted the New York police to establish their own aggressive counterterrorism force. The agencies have reportedly clashed over the handling of investigations such as the one involving would-be New York City bomber Jose Pimentel and the stationing of NYPD officers abroad to investigate terror attacks. Some have likened the conflicts to a turf war.

“Just what I read in the newspapers is disturbing, and these are things that are under review,” Holder told Lautenberg during a hearing on the Justice Department’s budget.

Holder said he’d received several letters from members of Congress about the surveillance and discussed it during a recent reception with Gov. Chris Christie. The author of one of the letters was Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey.

“Senator Menendez will be speaking directly with the attorney general on Monday and he will emphasize the importance of a robust review,” said Tricia Enright, Menendez’s spokeswoman.

Christie’s office said the governor’s conversation with Holder came at the White House on Feb. 26, when attendees of the National Governors Association were invited to dinner.

Christie has criticized New York police for not keeping New Jersey officials informed when they were conducting investigations, but he has not criticized the investigations themselves.

Holder did not specify whether he was disturbed by the investigations or the lack of notice, and his spokeswoman later declined to provide a clarification.

In questioning Holder at the hearing, Lautenberg had described complaints about the surveillance by Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and asked how law enforcement officials could “spy on another state’s residents without notifying the authorities.”

“I don’t know,” Holder replied.

The public scrutiny of the NYPD follows a series of reports by The Associated Press that the police did surveillance and collected information at places where Muslims worship, do business and go to school. Targets of surveillance have included the city of Newark, the Omar Mosque in Paterson and a Muslim student group at Rutgers University.

Ward said on Wednesday that the surveillance may have created new risks. “People are concerned that they’re being followed … that they can’t trust law enforcement, and it’s having a negative impact,” Ward said.

The comments, widely reported in the media, were a rare and unusually candid public statement pointed at another department.

“It’s not a routine practice for one law enforcement agency to publicly criticize another agency that works with the FBI,” said Lawrence Likar, chairman of the Department of Justice, Law and Security at La Roche College in Pittsburgh and a retired FBI supervisory agent.

Likar and Sherman said law enforcement agencies have typically aired their conflicts through less direct means, such as off-the-record statements to the media and document leaks.

“The NYPD has actually operated overseas intelligence gathering, making it to my knowledge the first and only police department to have overseas operators,” Sherman said. “That really then creates a recipe for tension in an area that has explicitly been the province of federal agencies.”

But Likar suggested reports of tension were overstated. He said there were at times mistakes and disagreements, but that the agencies work together often and generally work well.

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