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Chris Christie’s claim that ‘I spent my life protecting our country’ against terrorism (Fact Checker biography)

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“I spent seven years of my life in the immediate aftermath of September 11th doing this work, working with the Patriot Act, working with our law enforcement, working with the surveillance community to make sure that we keep America safe.”

“We prosecuted two of the biggest terrorism cases in the world and stopped Fort Dix from being attacked by six American radicalized Muslims from a Mosque in New Jersey because we worked with the Muslim American community to get intelligence and we used the Patriot Act to get other intelligence to make sure we did those cases. This is the difference between actually been a federal prosecutor, actually doing something, and not just spending your life as one of hundred debating it.”

“Terrorism — radical jihadist terrorism — is not theoretical to me. It’s real. And for seven years, I spent my life protecting our country against another one of those attacks.”

— New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), GOP debate on CNN, Dec. 15, 2015

Readers asked us to look into Christie’s anti-terrorism record, which he has been using on the campaign trail and pointed out repeatedly during the recent Republican debate. Christie has long touted his record prosecuting public corruption cases as a federal prosecutor. But what is his record on prosecuting terrorism cases?

The Facts

When Christie took the oath of office in January 2002 as the United States attorney in New Jersey, he vowed to uphold the Department of Justice’s priorities at the time: enforcing gun laws and preventing domestic terrorism.

“My job is to make people feel as confident as they can be that what happened on Sept. 11 is not going to happen again,” he was quoted as saying in the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

Christie restructured the U.S. attorney’s office to focus on pursuing anti-terrorism cases, and created a terrorism unit within the office. (When Christie resigned from the post, the Star-Ledger credited him for reorganizing his staff into “the well-oiled machine that accomplished so much” while he was U.S. attorney.)

Christie’s campaign pointed to four cases:

The Daniel Pearl case (2002). Christie’s campaign pointed to his prosecution of the suspect charged in the case of Daniel Pearl, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and murdered in 2002. The grand jury indictment charged Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh of being affiliated with radical militant organizations, fought with al-Qaeda forces and led co-conspirators to take Pearl hostage and kill him. An investigation by the Pearl Project confirmed that the former journalist was kidnapped and killed in connection with al-Qaeda operatives.

The Hemant Lakhani case (2005). The prosecution of Lakhani, suspected of being a major weapons trafficker to terrorist groups, was another major post-9/11 terrorism-related case. Lakhani did not end up in an actual smuggling plot, but federal officials believed that “they had taken a deadly threat off the street,” the Baltimore Sun reported in 2003. Christie handled the prosecution, as Lakhani was believed to be helping export weapons to New Jersey. Christie often points to his use of the Patriot Act in this case.

In 2007, This American Life reexamined this case, calling into question the use of informants, and whether Lakhani really was a threat. None of the claims that the informant made about the arms deal plot checked out, according to the report. Christie said in an interview with This American Life that Lakhani was “a bad guy” and that he was not willing to take the chance that Lakhani was not actually a threat.

The Fort Dix plot (2007). This was one of the most high-profile terrorism cases after 9/11, in which a group of would-be terrorists (described as “radical Islamists” by federal authorities) allegedly planned to attack Fort Dix and kill U.S. soldiers there. The men were convicted of conspiring to kill U.S. military personnel and sentenced to life in prison.

But some accuse prosecutors and the FBI of using dubious paid informants to entrap the men — three brothers and their two friends — and falsely accuse them of a crime they would not have committed. In an extensive 2015 article re-examining this case, the Intercept called into question the FBI’s use of informants, and whether the men truly conspired to commit the attack. The Intercept interviewed the FBI informant in the case, who described the three Duka brothers as “good people,” and claimed they were innocent.

Operation Arabian Knight (2010). Two New Jersey men, Carlos Eduardo Almonte and Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, were convicted of conspiring to kill join al Shabaab, kill people who did not believe in extremist ideologies and recruit Americans and other Westerners. The men were arrested at JFK International Airport while trying to fly from New York to Egypt, intending to join al-Shabaab in Somalia. The men were charged in 2010, when Christie began serving as New Jersey governor.

The campaign said Christie’s office was responsible for starting the investigation for four years, securing authorization for surveillance through the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The DOJ indictment credits New York Police Department’s intelligence division, and the FBI agent in charge of the agency’s Newark division also credited New Jersey law enforcement.

William Banks, founding director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University, said it’s not unreasonable to say the first three cases provided by the Christie campaign are material support cases — the key statute that allows the U.S. government to charge people suspected of providing material support to terrorist groups.

“These [cases] are victories, to be sure,” Banks said. But he also noted that the statute is expansive: “In those early years after 9/11, the tendency to rely on this federal law to use law enforcement to go after terrorists was just coming into its own, if you will.”

After 9/11, New Jersey “was one of the more active places for federal prosecutors to learn about terrorism activities, so it’s [Christie’s claim] probably not too much of a stretch,” Banks said.

As U.S. attorney, Christie increasingly focused on public corruption cases, which became the defining success from his time as U.S. attorney. This is evident in media coverage of his resignation; local outlets heralded his anti-corruption efforts, while references — if any — to his anti-terrorism record were brief.

Christie noted the Lakhani and Fort Dix cases in his resignation letter, but also declared that he brought “a new level of attention” to political corruption in New Jersey. Christie had touted that he pursued convictions of 130 public officials, which became a widely-known number associated with his record as federal prosecutor. (The Record in North Jersey recently reported that Christie sometimes exaggerates his crime-fighting record as U.S. attorney.)

A 2009 Star-Ledger profile on Christie ahead of his run for governor talked to prosecutors in Christie’s office who believed that he increasingly dedicated too many resources to cases that grabbed headlines, though they appreciated the cases because they brought recognition to their work.

“Some people felt he was too focused on political corruption to the detriment of other cases,” said Stephen J. Taylor, then-head of the terrorism and drug units under Christie, was quoted in that article.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said Christie’s focus on his anti-terrorism record in 2016 is a “rebranding.”

“At the time he was U.S. attorney, this was not something that office was putting out there as their major effort,” Murray said. “The big focus [ahead of Christie’s gubernatorial campaign] was over 130 corruption convictions or guilty pleas. That’s not to say that he didn’t highlight Fort Dix and other things when he did them. But in terms of quantity, they paled in comparison to the very frequent corruption stories that were coming out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office at the time.”

The Pinocchio Test

The duties of a federal prosecutor are broad enough that they conveniently allow Christie to highlight different parts of his record depending on the political campaign. When he resigned as U.S. attorney and was eyeing a gubernatorial run, he highlighted the anti-corruption part of his record that would resonate the most with voters in New Jersey. Now, on the presidential campaign trail, he touts his record prosecuting terrorism cases.

This talking point seemed to come out of nowhere, but it’s rooted in actual experience. His office was involved in prosecuting two high-profile post-9/11 terrorism cases, though it’s Christie-esque exaggeration to call them “two of the biggest terrorism cases in the world” (especially when the use of informants in both cases are now under question). While the FBI does identify the Fort Dix and Lakhani as two of the most significant terror cases in the United States, the Major Terrorism Cases list gives context to how many major terrorism cases (40) there have been since 9/11. He also goes too far saying he spent his “life” focused on anti-terrorism cases.

Christie’s exaggerated description of his record during the GOP debate is worthy of Two Pinocchios. But in other interviews, he has used his record to note that he is the only GOP candidate with direct experience prosecuting terrorism cases. He should stick to that version, rather than stretching the truth further. Overall, Christie earns One Pinocchio for this shift in rhetoric to fit the presidential issue du jour.

One Pinocchio

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