CHICAGO — The tip was a surprise when it arrived on the desk of Ted Wasky. Had it not come, the former FBI agent fears five Muslim men in Ohio might have pulled off a plot to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
The source of the tip? A fellow group of Muslims.
"They were talking about Jihad and wanting to defend their ... brothers in the Middle East against American aggression," Wasky said. "The community understood the freedoms they enjoyed in the U.S., were concerned, and they reported it to the joint task force."
The tipsters trusted the police enough to help the FBI infiltrate the group with an informant, and Wasky said that relationship was the "best thing that ever happened" to the local joint terrorism task force when he was the special agent in charge of the FBI's Cleveland office.
That's what police investigators, prosecutors and mayors in cities nationwide say the New York Police Department is putting at risk by conducting clandestine surveillance of Muslims in the city and across the Northeast. All cite their experience in serving communities that are home to large Muslim communities and other minority populations that have become isolated by events.
"It only takes one perceived mistake, whether it's a mistake or not, where the confidence of the community will be temporarily shattered or damaged," Wasky said.
Others said the NYPD's secret spying, and the voracious defense against suggestions it might be a mistake, is a misguided approach that will hinder the department's efforts to uncover potential attacks for years, if not decades.
That critique has been forcefully rejected by the NYPD and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has praised the department's tactics as ones that have kept the city safe in the decade since the Sept. 11 attacks. The department's spokesman this week said the NYPD retains "strong ongoing relations in the Muslim community" and pointed to successful anti-terror arrests he said have resulted from its intelligence operations.
For months, the surveillance of Muslims by the NYPD, detailed in a series of stories by The Associated Press, has been harshly criticized by some Muslim, civic and university leaders as an unconstitutional invasion of privacy.
But the most striking criticism came Wednesday from the head of the FBI's office in Newark, New Jersey, where the NYPD photographed mosques and eavesdropped on Muslim businesses in 2007. While taking care to say he did not want to "pile on," Special Agent in Charge Michael Ward said the spying program had already started to erode communication between the Joint Terrorism Task Force and Muslims in northern New Jersey and had created additional risks.
"People are concerned that they're being followed. They're concerned that they can't trust law enforcement, and it's having a negative impact," Ward said. "No matter what kind of operation you do, nothing is going to compare to your ability to have the confidence of the public and go out and sit down and conduct interviews and get their assistance."
Ward's boss, FBI Director Robert Mueller, has declined to comment on whether the NYPD's surveillance activities were legal, proper or effective, and earlier this week he praised New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly for doing "a remarkable job of protecting New York." However, Mueller did not interfere with or object to Ward's remarkable public and pointed criticisms of the NYPD's spying programs.
Likewise, while the Obama administration has refused to comment on the NYPD's actions, it has made outreach to Muslims a cornerstone of its effort to fight terrorism, and specifically cited the abilities of local police to connect with communities in ways that federal agents cannot.
Muslim activists in New York, upset with the NYPD's actions, have intensified in recent days their efforts to discourage people from going directly to police with concerns. Former Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon said that's what happened in his city after Arizona passed legislation in 2010 that aggressively targets illegal immigrants and requires police to question whether people are living in the country legally while enforcing other laws.
Not only did police notice that Hispanic residents who once waved to them started looking away when they drove by, Gordon said, but the officers widely believed immigrants didn't speak up when they saw a crime — or were even crime victims themselves — out of fear it would lead to their deportation.
"It's working within the community that prevents the problems," Gordon said. "Who better knows somebody that is a terrorist or a criminal than the community where they are hiding."
Ron Haddad, the chief of police in Dearborn, Michigan, where close to 40 percent of the city's nearly 100,000 residents are Arab- and Muslim-Americans, said there are limits to the value of surveillance. "The intelligence people tell you the only thing they can give you are indicators, and the indicators are very limited and nothing is absolute," Haddad said.
And so, police in Dearborn focus on building a relationship with city's Arab- and Muslim-Americans. They have asked Islamic leaders for advice and continually train officers to recognize the customs of various ethnic groups, including Muslims, to avoid offending members of those communities. Haddad said they have also taken care to openly and meticulously explain general police practices and, on occasion, even the specific details of ongoing investigations.
"If you can tell them, you need to tell them," Haddad said. He added, "The danger in not making the appropriate disclosure is they are going to be more suspicious of you."
The NYPD's spying in Newark came at a time when Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy was that city's police director. Following its disclosure, both he and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel reached out to reassure Muslims living in Chicago that the city's police will not conduct such surveillance or profile any single community.
Such surveillance has the potential to erode a community's trust in law enforcement that extends far beyond the police, said the top prosecutor in Chicago, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez.
"We get lumped in with the police," she said. "The distrust starts with police and goes right to us as well."
The break can last for decades, Alvarez said. Chicago authorities are still trying to recover from the fracture with black residents that stems from the actions of police Lt. Jon Burge, whose South Side unit tortured dozens of African-Americans into confessing to crimes they did not commit in the 1970s and '80s.
Despite widely publicized changes aimed at increasing the transparency of police interrogations, such as requiring police to videotape the interviews of murder suspects, some black Chicago residents still question whether confessions obtained by the city's cops are legitimate.
"Sometimes you wonder can we ever get past Burge," Alvarez said.
Such scars can even pass from parent to child. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Japanese Americans in California, still stung by the internment of more than 120,000 members of their community during World War II, were among the loudest is cautioning the nation not to blame all Muslims for the actions of al-Qaida.
U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, who as an infant was sent with his parents to an internment camp, has compared that action to the NYPD's treatment of Muslims and pressed Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department to investigate.
Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who was 11 when his family was forced to move from San Jose, California, to a camp, said he can still recall the vivid details of what happened, including the memory of wearing his Cub Scout uniform on his way to the camp and of a prized baseball bat that soldiers took because they said it could be used as a weapon.
"I always think I could be the subject of that surveillance just because of a suspicion," Mineta said. "I keep wondering how many generations you have to be living in this country to be fully treated as an American."
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