By SAMANTHA HENRY, Associated Press
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey's attorney general told Muslim leaders Saturday that he was still looking into the extent of New York Police Department surveillance operations in the state, yet stopped short of promising a formal investigation during a meeting that both sides characterized as productive.
Leaders from different New Jersey Muslim organizations met with Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa and state and federal law enforcement officials for nearly three hours in Trenton to discuss concerns over the NYPD's activities in the state.
Meanwhile, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly again defended his department's operations in a speech Saturday at the Fordham Law School in Manhattan, as about 60 protesters marched outside.
At the New Jersey meeting, several attendees said Chiesa told them during the private session that he was still reviewing what legal jurisdiction New Jersey law enforcement officials might have over NYPD operations in the state, before taking any formal action.
A spokesman for the attorney general, Paul Loriquet, called Saturday's meeting the start of an ongoing dialogue with New Jersey's Muslim American community.
"We will continue to reach out to the community and keep the communication channels open as we move forward in our fact-finding," he said.
New Jersey's Muslim leaders have been demanding at least a state investigation — if not a federal one — into the NYPD's activities following a series of stories by The Associated Press that detailed the monitoring or recommended surveillance of Muslims in New Jersey, the mapping of mosques in Newark and the monitoring of Muslim student groups, including at Rutgers University and at other schools in the Northeast.
During his Fordham speech, Kelly defended his department's operations in New Jersey, saying not only were they legal under court rules, known as the Handschu guidelines, which limit how and why police can collect intelligence before there's evidence of a crime, but that the NYPD only monitored groups or entered mosques when following leads.
Responding to criticism from New Jersey officials that the NYPD has overstepped its bounds by not fully informing them of their activities, Kelly cited the fact that 746 New Jersey residents were killed in the 9/11 attacks.
"If terrorists aren't limited by borders and boundaries, we can't be either," Kelly said. "It is entirely legal for the Police Department to conduct investigations outside of city limits, and we maintain very close relationships with local authorities."
But several New Jersey law enforcement officials have said that they've never sought to keep the NYPD out of the state. Instead, they are questioning why the NYPD seems to have been operating outside established protocols for law enforcement in both states to work together on investigations.
Kelly's comments added to an interstate war of words has been escalating between officials over the NYPD's conduct in New Jersey.
Gov. Chris Christie, who was the top federal prosecutor in New Jersey when the surveillance took place, said on a radio program Wednesday that the NYPD had arrogantly overstepped its bounds by not telling law enforcement officials in the state about the monitoring of Muslims in Newark.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker and the city's current and former police directors have said they were notified the NYPD was in their city but misled as to the nature of the investigation and would never have authorized such wholesale spying on Muslims if they had known about it. No Newark officials attended Saturday's meeting, and it's not clear if they had been invited.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has continued to defend the NYPD's intelligence operations, saying the department had the legal right to gather information that would be available to anyone about Muslims in the region, and adding during his weekly appearance Friday on WOR Radio: "To say that the NYPD should stop at the border is a bit ridiculous."
In saying Saturday that the NYPD only followed leads in New Jersey, Kelly did not address why, in 2007, the NYPD's secretive Demographics Unit fanned out across Newark, photographing every mosque and eavesdropping in Muslim businesses. The findings were cataloged in a 60-page report, obtained by the AP that served as a police guidebook to Newark's Muslims. There was no mention of terrorism or any criminal wrongdoing.
Imam Mustafa El-Amin, the head of Masjid Ibrahim in Newark, which was one of the mosques included in the NYPD's report, said they had always had an open-door policy for law enforcement officials, but wanted answers as to why the NYPD had collected information on his mosque without cause.
"We're not living in a shell, we understand some of the threats to our country, and to pretend like we don't understand that would be ridiculous," El-Amin said. "But there's process and there are procedures that are in place that have to be followed so that you don't violate any of the rights of the citizens of the United States of America."
El-Amin was among a group of leaders representing a cross-section of New Jersey's diverse Muslim population, who entered Saturday's meeting with New Jersey officials saying they would not settle for less than an official investigation, but left the meeting saying although an investigation hadn't been promised, they felt reassured that the officials were taking the matter seriously.
"It's the start; there's still a lot of unanswered questions, I'm going to be honest with you," said Amin Nathari, of the Muslim Community Leadership Coalition of Newark, who attended the meeting. "But the fact that we're all at the table having dialogue and that the commitment is there, that there's a mutual concern to get to the bottom of the issue and to get some justice, I think that we'll be OK going forward,"
In addition to the attorney general and more than a dozen Muslim leaders, the head of the FBI's Newark field office, the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, and representatives from the New Jersey State Police and the Department of Homeland Security also attended.
Paul Fishman, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, declined to comment on whether his office or the U.S. attorney general would be launching a formal investigation, saying only that the U.S. attorney general had already said he was taking a preliminary look at it.
"The issues that were raised relating to the New York Police Department are obviously of huge concern to the Arab and Muslim community in New Jersey and we want them to know that we're responsive to their concerns and that we want to hear what they have to say so that in determining what we're going to do, we know what the community thinks," Fishman said.
Several groups in New Jersey and New York, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the American Arab Forum and the Council of Shia Professionals, have sent letters asking for formal state and federal investigations into the NYPD's activities, saying that the surveillance plans detailed in the reports point to violations both of New Jersey law and the civil rights of law abiding residents.
Associated Press writer Chris Hawley in New York contributed to this report.
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