WASHINGTON – The Justice Department and New York Police Department are feuding over surveillance of suspected terrorists — and how quickly it can be legally approved.
Intelligence officials familiar with the spat say the NYPD is accusing federal lawyers of delaying approval of surveillance applications.
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly is complaining that the delays have made New York less safe.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey has countered that New York is asking for too much investigative leeway, and if the requests were approved, they might violate federal laws.
The two sides have been feuding for what officials described as weeks at least, with Kelly and Mukasey sending contentious letters back and forth.
“The federal government is doing less than it is lawfully entitled to do, and the city is less safe as a result,” Kelly wrote to Mukasey in one letter, parts of which were read aloud to The Associated Press.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd confirmed the letter exchange and said the government was working with the NYPD to make the process “consistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
“While disagreements inevitably arise during the course of investigations, the Justice Department and FBI continue to work closely with the New York City Police Department with significant urgency and resolve to protect New York City and the entire nation against terrorism,” Boyd said in a statement.
At issue is the legal process police and prosecutors must go through in applying for wiretaps or other surveillance methods on foreign terrorist suspects.
The federal Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, requires investigators to obtain a warrant from a secret court in Washington to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists inside the country.
Generally the FBI or other federal investigators apply for the warrants, which must be reviewed by the Justice Department before they are submitted to the FISA Court for final approval. But in recent years, the NYPD has ramped up its own counterterror mission, and is allowed to apply for the warrants as part of a task force with other local and federal agencies.
Last year the FISA Court approved 2,371 warrants targeting people in the United States believed to be linked to international terror organizations. It denied three warrant applications in full and partially denied one, according to Justice data. Additionally, the court sent 86 applicants back to the government for changes before approving them.
It was unclear Wednesday how many of the warrant applications were from the NYPD.
One official familiar with the situation said the Justice Department has not rejected any of the NYPD’s applications.
But, several intelligence officials said, Kelly has grown frustrated with questions from Justice about whether the NYPD was overstepping legal boundaries related to whether it had enough probable cause to ask for the extraordinary surveillance measures.
All of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation publicly.