ACLU of New Jersey Seeks “Potential Threat Elements” Details
NEWARK, NJ -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today renewed a public records request to nine New Jersey towns for information about individuals and organizations designated as “potential threat elements” (PTEs), including the criteria used by the towns to make such determinations.
“We all want the police to protect us from real criminals and terrorists,” said Deborah Jacobs, ACLU of New Jersey Executive Director. “But the public should be able to find out whether resources and funds designated to fight terrorism are being misused to target innocent Americans who have done nothing more than criticize the government or practice their religion.”
The designation of individuals or organizations as PTEs was included in the application for Department of Homeland Security grant money. In order to obtain certain Homeland Security grants, towns that applied were asked to identify up to 15 individuals or organizations in their communities as PTEs. While some states - including Washington and Minnesota - publicly disclosed the names of PTEs or criteria used to identify them, such basic information has never been disclosed in New Jersey.
“Sadly, we know that the federal government has recently spied on or targeted organizations, such as the Quakers and pro-peace groups, not because they pose a threat, but rather due to their political beliefs,” said ACLU of New Jersey Legal Director Ed Barocas. “We want to make sure that our own New Jersey government officials are not doing likewise.”
The ACLU of New Jersey’s first request for this information came in April 2004. The ACLU of New Jersey sent open public records requests to the 50 largest New Jersey municipalities to obtain documents disclosing the identification of and criteria for designating PTEs. While most municipalities had no such documents, some responded by refusing to disclose their records, claiming they were exempt from disclosure under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA), or that they had been instructed by the State Attorney General’s office not to disclose the information. On October 4, 2004, the ACLU of New Jersey filed an OPRA request directly with the Office of the Attorney General. On October 19, 2004, the Office of the Attorney General responded, claiming that such records were exempt as “security measures or surveillance techniques” and that their disclosure would interfere with the ability to protect the state against acts of sabotage or terrorism.
The ACLU of New Jersey filed a lawsuit against the Attorney General to obtain the records in December 2004. Almost a year later, the Office of the Attorney General confirmed that it had no records pertaining to PTEs and that it did not advise the municipalities to withhold the information the ACLU of New Jersey requested. The case was therefore voluntarily dismissed by the ACLU of New Jersey. The case was Deborah Jacobs v. Peter Harvey, et al.
The ACLU of New Jersey therefore renewed its request for information related to the PTEs to the towns that previously responded that they believed such information was exempt from disclosure or that claimed the Office of the Attorney General directed them not to disclose such information. Those towns are: Edison, Linden, Middletown, Mount Laurel, Newark, Parsippany-Troy Hills, Trenton, Wayne and West New York.