By Jason Grant
Religion News Service
NEWARK, N.J. (RNS) As friction over the New York Police Department's spying on New Jersey Muslims continues to grow, the state's top FBI officer said the uproar is damaging his agency's ability to gather important counterterrorism intelligence.
"What we have now is (Muslim communities) ... that they're not sure they trust law enforcement in general, they're fearing being watched, they're starting to withdraw their activities," Michael Ward, director of the FBI's Newark division, said Tuesday (March 6).
"And the impact of that sinking tide of cooperation means that we don't have our finger on the pulse of what's going on in the community as well -- we're less knowledgeable, we have blind spots, and there's more risk."
In his first public comments on the deepening controversy, Ward said the FBI has spent the years after 9/11 opening lines of communication with New Jersey's Muslim communities.
"Now that trust is being challenged, those relationships are being strained," he said, his voice rising with emphasis. "And it's the trust and those relationships that provide the true security against terrorism."
In a rare public criticism of another agency, Ward also questioned the effectiveness of the NYPD's 2007 surveillance as plainclothes officers charted mosques and other places frequented by Muslims.
"There's a difference between effective intel and intel that's not effective," he said. "If the NYPD intel could come over (to New Jersey) and identify hot spots of al-Qaida sympathizers, or if they could identify individuals being radicalized over the Internet, then that would have a direct correlation to counterterrorism efforts and that would be something that we could use, that would be useful intelligence.
"But (the NYPD) coming out and just basically mapping out houses of worship and minority-owned businesses, there's no correlation between the location of houses of worship and minority-owned businesses and counterterrorism" work.
Ward also said there should be "an articulable factual basis" for domestic intelligence collection, such as a "specific reason why we're looking at this location, this person."
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne responded in an e-mail that plainclothes officers of the NYPD who operated in other states, such as New Jersey, "were not conducting blanket ongoing surveillance of communities."
Plainclothes officers would go into neighborhoods with heavy concentrations of populations from the "countries of interest," and observe the individuals in the public establishments.
"This is an important point -- only public locations were visited. This was perfectly within the purview of the NYPD," Browne said.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly have staunchly defended the need for and legality of the NYPD operating beyond New York, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker have criticized the undercover operation.
Ultimately, Ward said, speaking broadly of the Muslim and other communities' view of law enforcement, "Reputations are built by many deeds and ruined by one."
(Jason Grant writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)