WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress on Thursday he's disturbed by what he's read about the New York Police Department conducting surveillance of mosques and Islamic student organizations in New Jersey.
Holder's brief comments represented the most extensive public discussion of the topic to date by anyone in the Obama administration. The administration has repeatedly refused to endorse or repudiate the NYPD's tactics, which include cataloging mosques and Muslim-owned businesses, recording the license plates of worshippers at mosques, infiltrating student groups and eavesdropping in Muslim neighborhoods.
The NYPD conducted some of those operations outside its jurisdiction in New Jersey, prompting criticism from politicians and from the FBI, which said the surveillance has damaged relations with Muslims and weakened national security.
Holder's remarks, at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee, followed questions by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who asked how one law enforcement agency could spy on another state's residents without notifying authorities. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker were apparently "unaware of this large-scale investigation," Lautenberg said.
"I don't know," Holder replied. "We are in the process of reviewing the letters that have come in expressing concerns about those matters."
"At least what I've read publicly, and again, just what I've read in the newspapers, is disturbing," Holder said. "And these are things that are under review at the Justice Department."
Holder did not elaborate on whether he was disturbed by the tactics or the fact that they were done outside of New York. Three dozen members of Congress have asked for a Justice Department investigation.
Federal prosecutors have used civil rights laws to crack down on police abuses such as racial profiling and unnecessary uses of force. But in the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the Justice Department has not publicly investigated a police department for its counterterrorism efforts.
Holder's comments followed unusually strong criticism of the NYPD by the top FBI agent in New Jersey, who said the police surveillance had made Muslims more distrustful of law enforcement and made it harder to fight terrorism.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg continued to defend his department Thursday.
"We have the best police department in the world, and I think they show that every single day, and we have stopped 14 attacks since 9/11, fortunately without anybody dying," he said at a mayors conference in Chicago.
Bloomberg and others frequently cite the decade without successful terrorist attacks as proof that the NYPD's programs work, and polls show the department enjoys strong support among New Yorkers. The list of 14 plots, however, includes efforts that the NYPD had nothing to do with thwarting. And one, the nearly successful car bombing in Times Square, failed only because of a design flaw.
The NYPD has repeatedly said that all its tactics are legal. And while some civil rights lawyers disagree, most of the questions raised about the spying programs have been questions of public policy, not law.
The NYPD's intelligence unit operates with nearly no outside oversight. The City Council is not told about its spying programs and does not review them. Neither Congress nor the Homeland Security Department conducts oversight of the intelligence programs. And the White House, whose grants have helped pay for equipment used in the spying, has said it cannot control how the money is used.
Also Thursday, the head of Newark's Roman Catholic archdiocese and other religious leaders joined with New Jersey Muslims in demanding reassurance from state authorities that no one is being spied on because of religion.
"Just as it is paramount for our people and institutions in authority to secure our safety, it is equally paramount for people and institutions in authority in our free society to protect and secure every one of our basic liberties, especially our liberty to express our faith," Archbishop John J. Myers said. "To do otherwise is to invite fear, hatred and oppression into our lives."
Associated Press writer Samantha Henry in Newark contributed to this report.