The Record

Posted by The Record on April 24, 2012 in News Clips

President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser wasn’t referring to a controversial surveillance program when he praised the New York Police Department’s counterterrorism efforts last week, a White House official said.

The clarification of remarks by John Brennan was issued Tuesday evening as national Muslim and Arab groups expressed frustration with what they described as mixed messages from the Obama administration over NYPD surveillance operations in New Jersey and New York.

Brennan on Friday praised the agency for its anti-terror efforts, saying he has “full confidence that the NYPD is doing things consistent with the law” — comments that some observers believed represented an endorsement of police tactics by the Obama administration.

“John never approved of described press accounts of alleged NYPD surveillance,” a White House official said on Tuesday. “In his remarks, he wasn’t referring to the NYPD surveillance. Rather, he was stating that everyone in the counterterrorism and law enforcement community must make sure we are doing things consistent with the law.”

Months after The Associated Press first reported about NYPD surveillance of Muslims at businesses, university campuses and mosques, including one in Paterson and several in Newark, the clarification on behalf of a key government official suggests the White House is still struggling to find the right response to the department’s operations. The NYPD’s spying on Muslims in New Jersey drew fire from Governor Christie, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and prompted a condemnation from the FBI chief in Newark. Attorney General Eric Holder told a congressional panel that he was disturbed by reports of the surveillance program. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Director Raymond Kelly have steadfastly defended the anti-terrorism spying campaign.

Meanwhile, two polls of New Jersey respondents found that most approved of NYPD surveillance.

The White House official’s account echoes statements that Brennan’s office made to the Arab American Institute and the Muslim Public Affairs Council this week that Brennan “was not rendering any judgment as to whether NYPD’s practices should be the focus of a federal investigation.”

The White House’s comments on surveillance operations has led to confusion and waning confidence in the Obama administration over civil rights, Omar Tewfik, spokesman for the Arab American Institute, said Tuesday.

“It’s chaos right now in terms of what they’re telling us and what they’re putting out in the public,” he said.

Tewfik said the Obama administration’s stance on surveillance is unclear and part of larger concerns about civil rights under Obama. He pointed to fears about the National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law by Obama on Dec. 31, that broadens the ability of the U.S. military to detain people accused of terrorist activity, including U.S. citizens.

Tewfik said the civil rights debate could sway people not to support the president in the November presidential election.

“Whether or not the president will be able to mobilize his base to the degree he did in 2008 – I think that will be interesting,” he said.

Until Friday, top administration officials including the president himself, had declined to comment on the controversy, citing an ongoing Department of Justice review. At an Arab American Leadership Day briefing at the White House on Friday, top administration officials said they could not comment.

“Last week we were in D.C. and were told repeatedly that the White House will not be weighing in on this issue,” said Linda Sansour, director of the Arab American Association of New York.

“That for me is a stamp of approval on the NYPD tactics,” she added.

The U.S. Attorney General’s Office said it was reviewing facts before deciding whether to launch an official investigation, which dozens of civic, religious and civil rights groups and some lawmakers have demanded.

A meeting with Brennan and a handful of Arab and Muslim leaders in Irvington on Saturday did little to ease the feeling that the administration was sending mixed signals. The meeting was dubbed a “dialogue” at the invitation of the White House, but only four people attended and one participant described it as “hastily organized.”

Samar Khalaf, a lawyer and Arab-American activist who was at the meeting, said the invitation was issued on Thursday and participants were told to keep discussion strictly confidential.

“I was disappointed by the turnout and the lack of any substantive statements or substantive information provided to the community. He really didn’t tell us anything,” he said.

Sansour also took issue with the location, saying Brennan should have held it in New York, where more people have been affected by surveillance.

Saturday’s meeting was meant to provide a forum between John Brennan and leaders representing segments of the New Jersey American Arab and American Muslim communities "as he is from the area near there," the official said, saying it was part of ongoing dialogue with the White House and grassroots leaders. Brennan has said the Muslim community needs to be part of the solution to combat terrorist threats.

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