(NEW YORK) — A top New York Police Department official on Wednesday offered an unwavering defense of the FBI over how the agency handled its review two years ago of Ahmad Rahami, who is now a suspect in an apparently al-Qaeda-inspired bombing spree around New York and New Jersey.
Rahami “was handled to the extent that the law, the system and the guidelines that we operate under would allow,” NYPD Deputy Commissioner John Miller told a House panel.
His comments come one day after the FBI acknowledged it conducted a low-level review of Rahami two years ago, but found no reason to believe he posed a threat at the time.
A neighbor prompted the 2014 inquiry, after he told authorities who were inquiring into a dispute at the Rahami home that he had heard the father call his son a “terrorist” and that Rahami’s associates overseas may have been trying to procure explosives.
“He seems like many suspects who came into contact with the system at various times,” Miller, who heads his department’s counterterrorism and intelligence efforts, told the House Homeland Security Committee. “People have somewhat of a misconception about our ability to put someone under surveillance [and] leave them there indefinitely.”
Miller noted that Rahami didn’t raise any more flags after the FBI’s 2014 review.
“It’s not realistic to say every time someone comes on the radar, you’re going to be able to follow them … for an extended period of time, while you have investigations that are on the front burner involving people who are demonstrably dangerous,” Miller added.
Nevertheless, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., suggested the FBI could inform local police about even low-level assessments they conduct so “street cops” can be told to “keep your eyes and ears open on this guy in case you hear something about him.”
Miller said he thought federal guidelines and his own department’s guidelines would allow such a move.
The FBI first became aware of Rahami in the summer of 2014, when local law enforcement contacted the agency’s New Jersey field office about him, sources said.
“The FBI conducted internal database reviews, interagency checks, and multiple interviews — none of which revealed ties to terrorism,” the statement said.
The FBI also interviewed Rahami’s father, who told agents his son had traveled to Pakistan and was interacting with “bad people,” according to sources, and added that his son had injured and beaten members of his immediate family.
However, Rahami’s father later told the FBI he didn’t mean to suggest his son was a terrorist, but that he was hanging out with “undesirables,” the U.S. official said.
The FBI never interviewed Rahami himself and a grand jury declined to file charges against him.
The FBI’s ability to assess potential terrorists came under intense scrutiny earlier this year after Florida native Omar Mateen opened fire in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in June, killing 49 people and injuring scores more.
In May 2013 the FBI had obtained sufficient information to open a preliminary investigation into Mateen — coworkers told authorities that Mateen had made terrorism-related comments at work. But after 10 months of investigation, including two interviews with Mateen, the FBI determined there wasn’t enough information to indicate he was “possibly a terrorist,” as FBI Director James Comey said after the Orlando attack.
Two months later, in July 2014, the FBI took another look at Mateen because his name “surfaced” in a separate terrorism investigation, Comey told reporters. Mateen was interviewed again, but authorities found no reason to continue tracking him.
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