Christie Spins His Version of Security Record on Trail

As a presidential candidate, Gov. Chris Christie has sought to differentiate himself by spotlighting his tenure as the United States attorney for New Jersey, framing it as a time when he spent his “life protecting our country” against terrorism. The message has begun to resonate: Mr. Christie, long an underdog in the Republican presidential field, has recently risen in the polls.

A close examination of Mr. Christie’s record as New Jersey’s top federal prosecutor from 2002 to 2008 shows that he did acquire greater counterterrorism experience than his current rivals. But it also shows that he has, at times, overstated the significance of the terrorism prosecutions he oversaw — he has called them “two of the biggest terrorism cases in the world” — and appears to have exaggerated his personal role in obtaining court permission for surveillance of terrorism suspects.

At the first Republican debate in August, Mr. Christie called himself “the only person on this stage who’s actually filed applications under the Patriot Act, who has gone before the Foreign Intelligence Service Court.” Similarly, his campaign website says “Christie’s office” secured authorization from that court, which is actually called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, for the surveillance of terrorism suspects.

While the court, which is also known as the FISA court, did approve national security wiretaps in New Jersey on Mr. Christie’s watch, neither he nor his office secured them. Only the Office of Intelligence at the Justice Department’s headquarters drafts and submits applications for surveillance and then litigates them before the court.

Mr. Christie’s campaign website credits his office with obtaining an indictment against the kidnapper of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was abducted and killed in Pakistan, and notes that the defendant, Ahmed Omar Sheikh, was “sentenced to death.” It does not mention a key fact: The trial took place in Pakistan. Mr. Christie’s office had no role in it.

Mr. Christie, in an interview on Wednesday, stood by his characterization of his accomplishments as prosecutor, and denied using any dramatic license when speaking about his record.

“I have been exposed to both information and agencies that these other folks just haven’t been exposed to,” he said, referring to the other presidential candidates.

He said that he never implied that he had appeared before the FISA court himself.

“We absolutely work in coordination with the Justice Department to provide them with the information that allows them to make the application,” he said, adding: “I never said that I personally appeared before the FISA court. I said we appeared, as the Justice Department.”

Mr. Christie has described his experience handling terrorism in vivid terms, returning to the theme during debates, and mocking his rivals for what he has said was their comparatively frivolous national security experience.

The most recent debate, in Las Vegas, gave Mr. Christie even more maneuvering room; the theme of the evening, after the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., focused on national security. Mr. Christie seized every opportunity, saying that “New Jersey was threatened like no other region in this country” and branding several candidates who serve in the Senate as “people who’ve never had to make a consequential decision in an executive position.”

Mr. Christie has also repeatedly described himself as having been “named” — and at least once as having been “appointed” — United States attorney on the portentous date of Sept. 10, 2001. In fact, that was the date the Bush administration informed him he would be nominated for the job if he passed a background check; President Bush nominated him three months later, and he took office in January 2002.

Mr. Christie said in the interview that Sept. 10 was the day he started thinking about what his new job and life were going to be like. He said he had also received briefings about cases his future office was working on as part of the nomination process.

“It’s not like I was sitting around and waiting for something to happen between Sept. 10 and Jan. 17,” he said.

After taking office, Mr. Christie took several steps to focus on terrorism. He voluntarily joined a subcommittee of United States attorneys that advised the attorney general on terrorism prosecution policy matters. Justice Department records show that he was a member of the group from 2002 to 2007.

Leslie Wiser Jr., who was the special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Newark Division from 2005 to 2007, said that he met with Mr. Christie at least once every two weeks to brief him about what matters the bureau’s 352 agents were working on, from corruption cases to terrorism investigations, and described Mr. Christie as “knowledgeable and engaged” across that spectrum.

“We had quite a few significant investigations” in terrorism matters, he said, including “cases that didn’t result in charges” and thus do not appear in public records.

As part of a reorganization of his office in May 2002, Mr. Christie created a unit of about eight prosecutors dedicated to working on terrorism issues. He said he was able to do that because the Justice Department offered to finance additional positions for assistant United States attorneys devoted to those issues.

The unit went on to win convictions in two notable jihadist terrorism cases during Mr. Christie’s tenure, the two he recently portrayed as among “the biggest terrorism cases in the world.”

In 2005, the unit convicted an Indian-born British businessman, Hemant Lakhani, of trying to broker the sale of an anti-plane missile from a purported Russian military officer to a purported terrorist. And in 2008, it won the convictions of several Muslim American men charged with plotting a mass shooting of people at Fort Dix, N.J.

Both cases were so-called stings by the F.B.I., which used confidential informants to create the situations in which the defendants implicated themselves. In the Lakhani case, both the purported seller and buyer of the missile were government agents. In the Fort Dix case, the suspects were under surveillance for over a year after an informant alerted law enforcement authorities to a possible threat.

Critics of such tactics portray them as entrapment, while proponents say they remove potential terrorists from the street before they can kill.

Either way, neither of the two New Jersey prosecutions involved actual attacks, such as the 1998 United States Embassy bombings in East Africa, the Sept. 11 attacks and the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon. They also did not involve plots that almost succeeded without law enforcement knowledge, like the attempted bombing of planes with bombs concealed in an attacker’s shoes in 2002, and in underwear in 2009; a barely thwarted 2009 attack on New York City subways; and a 2010 bombing attempt in Times Square.

Mr. Christie defended his portrayal of the importance of the missile and Fort Dix cases, saying they exemplified the philosophy of averting threats before any attack.

“It is no longer enough to wait until the crime occurs,” Mr. Christie said. He argued: “The Boston bombing is a failure. It’s a failure of intelligence and a failure of law enforcement.”

Mr. Christie’s campaign website also gives the governor credit for what became known as Operation Arabian Knight, a prosecution of two men who wanted to travel to Somalia and join the Shabab, an Islamist group. They were arrested in 2010, after Mr. Christie was no longer the United States attorney, but had been under investigation since 2006.

The website does not mention another case that brought Mr. Christie national attention under a counterterrorism banner: In May 2002, he announced the arrest of 56 foreign college students, mostly from the Middle East, who were accused of cheating on English proficiency exams.

At the time, he told reporters the sweep was part of a strategy meant to arrest potential terrorists before they could strike, saying: “In light of what we saw on September 11, we all have an obligation to prevent domestic terrorism.”

None were convicted of anything related to terrorism.

Mr. Christie said he did not know why that case was not mentioned on his website, and that he did not review all of its content.

Daniel C. Richman, a Columbia University professor and former prosecutor, said the bureaucratic context is important for assessing New Jersey’s cases. Especially in that era, the Justice Department had concentrated its counterterrorism expertise and work in the Southern District of New York, because of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and 1998 embassy bombing cases. Other districts, like New Jersey, “had some action, but because of the way the investigations were run, were never going to be the center of gravity.”

Mr. Christie acknowledged in the interview that as a United States attorney from a different district, “you are always the stepchild to S.D.N.Y. — it’s just the way that it is.”

He then quickly added: “If you think that being U.S. attorney, from four months after Sept. 11 and for the rest of the Bush administration, that there wasn’t a significant focus every day — not just these cases that became public ones but lots of other things — then you are misunderstanding the era.”

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