NEWARK - After four years of wrangling with the Office of the New Jersey Attorney General, the ACLU-NJ has finally obtained a list of the organizations identified by New Jersey law enforcement as "potential threat elements (PTEs)." These designations, made by municipalities in order to receive funding from Department of Homeland Security grant programs in 2003 and 2004, identified people or groups that law enforcement thought might commit acts of terrorism in the future.
"This has been a long and important battle for open government," stated Gary D. Nissenbaum, Esq. of the Nissenbaum Law Group located in Union, who served as cooperating counsel for the ACLU-NJ. "Our goal was to ensure that no one was targeted for First Amendment activities or religious affiliations, as we have seen in past times of political unrest."
As a result of this lawsuit, the Office of the Attorney General finally provided a List of 59 Entities Containing PTEs it had designated. This disclosure confirmed that no groups were improperly identified as PTEs; none were houses of worship, and no private individuals were identified.
Fourteen of the organizations identified by Hudson County were on either the U.S. Department of State's list of foreign terrorist organizations or the Anti-Defamation League's list of American extremist groups. The fifteenth PTE listed in Hudson County was described as "a well-recognized criminal organization with its roots in El Salvador and Guatemala."
When the ACLU-NJ learned in 2004 that municipalities had to list "potential threat elements" to receive federal grant money, it requested information about the list from municipalities and the state. The concern over identification of private individuals, religious organizations, peace groups or anyone else protected by the First Amendment was heightened by the fact that inclusion on this list would trigger a preliminary investigation by the FBI.
In other states, PTEs and criteria for their designation were placed on public government websites. However, New Jersey's towns refused to do so.
In December 2004, the ACLU-NJ sued former Attorney General Peter Harvey, who then said in September 2005 that his office had not directed towns to deny the requests. Another round of ACLU-NJ requests for information turned up a 2004 memorandum from the Attorney General directing towns not to release potential threat information to the ACLU-NJ.
On August 31, 2006, after the ACLU-NJ sued Harvey again, the Superior Court of New Jersey awarded the ACLU-NJ over $10,000 in legal fees, having found that Harvey inappropriately withheld documents about PTEs. Soon after, the Attorney General's office admitted that three counties had named PTES: Hudson, Cape May and one other county that to this day remains unidentified. As a result of the June 10 Attorney General's Office disclosure, the actual names of the PTEs have now been released as part of a larger list supplied by the Office of the Attorney General.
"Open government is central to democracy," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs. "The government can't expect to set policy in the dark and not have people holding up flashlights and asking about secrecy."