After a car bombing in southeastern Iran killed 11 Revolutionary Guard members in 2007, a C.I.A. officer noticed something surprising in the agency’s files: an intelligence report, filed ahead of the bombing, that had warned that something big was about to happen in Iran.
Though the report had provided few specifics, the C.I.A. officer realized it meant that the United States had known in advance that a Sunni terrorist group called Jundallah was planning an operation inside Shiite-dominated Iran, two former American officials familiar with the matter recalled. Just as surprising was the source of the report. It had originated in Newark, with a detective for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The Port Authority police are responsible for patrolling bridges and tunnels and issuing airport parking tickets. But the detective, a hard-charging and occasionally brusque former ironworker named Thomas McHale, was also a member of an F.B.I. counterterrorism task force. He had traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan and developed informants inside Jundallah’s leadership, who then came under the joint supervision of the F.B.I. and C.I.A.
Reading the report, the C.I.A. officer became increasingly concerned. Agency lawyers he consulted concluded that using Islamic militants to gather intelligence — and obtaining information about attacks ahead of time — could suggest tacit American support for terrorism. Without specific approval from the president, the lawyers said, that could represent an unauthorized covert action program. The C.I.A. ended its involvement with Mr. McHale’s informants.
Despite the C.I.A.’s concerns, American officials continued to obtain intelligence from inside Jundallah, first through the F.B.I., and then the Pentagon. Contacts with informants did not end when Jundallah’s attacks led to the deaths of Iranian civilians, or when the State Department designated it a terrorist organization. Senior Justice Department and F.B.I. lawyers at the time say they never reviewed the matter and were unaware of the C.I.A. concerns. And so the relationship persisted, even as American officials repeatedly denied any connection to the group.