NYPD Battles FBI and Justice Department Over Surveillance

By: Gerri L. Elder

The New York Police Department is gunning for a wider authority to eavesdrop on terrorism suspects, while the Justice Department is pushing for more limited use of police surveillance. The two agencies have butted heads on the issue and are now locked in a bitter debate, each claiming that the other is responsible for increasing public risk.

The New York Times reports that the NYPD already operates the biggest municipal counterterrorism operation in the United States; however, the department wants the Justice Department and FBI to relax enforcement of the federal law that governs electronic surveillance so that they may have more leverage to go after terrorism suspects.

The Justice Department has refused to compromise the law and shrieked that by even asking for such a thing, the NYPD has cast doubts about the legality of surveillance operations and put the whole system in jeopardy.

The federal law requires the government, in most cases, to get a warrant from the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before beginning any electronic monitoring or eavesdropping on suspected spies or terrorists. Requests for these warrants are scrutinized by FBI lawyers, then lawyers at the Justice Department, before being picked apart by the court.

The NYPD is not allowed to directly apply for a surveillance warrant. The department has to seek warrants through the Justice Department and FBI.

The police department expects these federal agencies to fast-track their requests; however, the NYPD claims that its applications for surveillance warrants were unfairly blocked in June and September. This came as quite a shock coming from the Bush administration, given that it has seemed to be willing to fudge boundaries in the past in order to combat terrorism.

Police commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey have reportedly been furiously sending letters back and forth for several months now. Each official has made accusations that the other has mishandled terrorism cases and taken a course of action that has put the public at risk.

Mukasey defends his position by saying that the NYPD requested a warrant to eavesdrop on “numerous communications facilities” without spelling out any good or specific reason why they sought authority. Other officials familiar with the requests have said that the NYPD Intelligence Division sought unusually broad surveillance warrants that included telephones in public places, instead of phones used by any specific individual.

There are overlapping security responsibilities in New York by the NYPD and the FBI’s office in New York. Officials say that the two are frequently locking horns, but the current dispute has brought things to a new low.

Since the Justice Department has been unable to resolve this conflict, it may land in the lap of Eric H. Holder Jr., who is expected to be tapped by President-elect Barack Obama to be the next attorney general. This could mean that the NYPD will be out of luck, as the Obama administration is not likely to have a more relaxed attitude about eavesdropping than the Bush administration.