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ACLU: FBI 'mosque outreach' program used to spy on Muslims

Muslims gather to pray at the Omar al Farouk Mosque in November 2010 in Anaheim, Calif. In that Southern California community, tensions flared after an FBI informant, Craig Monteilh, infiltrated mosques to gather information.

The FBI in San Francisco used a public relations program billed as "mosque outreach" to collect information on the religious views and practices of Muslims in Northern California and then shared the intelligence with other government agencies, according to FBI documents obtained by civil rights groups.

The heavily redacted documents, released after a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, raise "grave constitutional concerns," said Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"In San Francisco, we have found that community outreach was being run out of the FBI’s intelligence division and was part of a secret and systematic intelligence gathering program,” conducted without any apparent evidence of wrongdoing," said Shamsi. "The bureau’s documentation of religious leaders' and congregants' beliefs and practices violates the Privacy Act, which Congress passed to protect Americans’ First Amendment rights."

The Privacy Act limits sharing of personal information among government agencies and the length of time it can be retained. In this case, the information shared included religious beliefs and affiliations, which the ACLU argues is entirely out of bounds.

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The ACLU is calling for the Department of Justice’s inspector general to investigate alleged violations of the Privacy Act in the San Francisco Division and determine the scope of such activity nationwide.

The FBI San Francisco defended its agents' actions, saying the information "was collected within the scope of an authorized law enforcement activity."

The ACLU of Northern California filed the FOIA lawsuit with the Asian Law Caucus and the San Francisco Bay Guardian newspaper, leading to the release of the FBI documents on Tuesday.

Meant to foster trust
The documents indicate that FBI was keeping records of conversations and activities within mosques and other Muslim organizations from 2004 through 2008, information that was provided by employees engaged in the outreach programs.

The announced intention of the FBI outreach programs is to foster trust between law enforcers and members of the Muslim community so they can work together to fight crime and avert terrorism.

An earlier ACLU report on community outreach prompted FBI national headquarters to issue a release stating that its policy requires separate operations and databases for intelligence gathering and community outreach programs.

A large proportion of the information was labeled "positive intelligence," which indicates that the FBI intends to keep it in its intelligence database, the ACLU report explained.

Many documents were marked "secret," even though they appeared to include only mundane information. Some documents were marked "disseminated outside," but did not specify the recipients.

Among the findings contained in the FBI documents:

  • A 2005 FBI memorandum from a meeting with a congregant at Islamic Center of Santa Cruz, documented his name and religious affiliation and detailed other worshipers' financial contributions to the center and community support for Islam.
  • The subject of a sermon and congregants' discussions about a property purchase for a new mosque were gathered by FBI agents during five visits to Seaside Mosque in 2005.
  • Documents based on four "outreach" meetings between FBI personnel and representatives of the South Bay Islamic Association note discussions about the Hajj pilgrimage and "Islam in general."
  • Documents based on FBI contacts with representatives of the Bay Area Cultural Connections — formerly the Turkish Center Musalla — describe the group’s mission and activities, and the ethnicity of its members. A memo indicates the FBI searched for the cell phone number of one participant in the meeting in the LexisNexis records database and Department of Motor Vehicle records, obtaining detailed information about him, including his date of birth, Social Security number, address and home telephone number.

There is no indication that the subjects were informed that the information was being collected or shared with other law enforcement agencies, the ACLU said.

The FBI in San Francisco declined a request for an interview, but released a statement by Assistant Director Michael Kortan. In addition to stating that the information gathering abided by laws and agency rules, it indicated that it had adjusted its outreach program since the period covered by the documents.

"Since that time, the FBI has formalized its community relations program to emphasize a greater distinction between outreach and operational activities," Kortan said.

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Outreach to 'generate goodwill'
"FBI San Francisco dedicated a full-time, non-agent employee to community outreach efforts in the fall of 2007," said a second statement from Stephanie Douglas, FBI special agent in charge. "The community outreach program is designed to generate goodwill and foster relationships with a wide-range of groups in the communities we serve."

But documents still under analysis by the ACLU indicate FBI San Francisco continued to mingle outreach and intelligence gathering through 2011, according to Shamsi.

The documents undermine trust for genuine outreach programs, said Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that makes policy recommendations to lawmakers and leaders.

"I think the recent documents further underscore how well-intentioned community leaders who talk with the FBI are instead the targets of this broad, intelligence-gathering effort," she said. "It’s easy to see then how that community leader who had a conversation with an FBI agent finds himself being harassed when traveling or crossing borders."

"These documents are illustrating the actual experiences of American Muslims that we have been hearing for a number of years now," she added.  

The findings are the latest  from an ACLU examination of how the FBI has conducted surveillance in the wake of 9-11 and a campaign to expose cases that they say threaten civil liberties.

In FBI documents obtained through other Freedom of Information lawsuits, the rights groups has highlighted systematic surveillance of Muslim student organizations and individuals and what it considers anti-Muslim bias in training materials being used by the FBI —now the subject of internal FBI investigation, according to published reports.

'Count the mosques'

In a separate case, documents uncovered by The Associated Press revealed that the New York Police Department conducted an extensive surveillance campaign of the Muslim population there, keeping secret files on individuals, businesses, mosques and organizations. Those findings have provoked outrage from many Muslim and civil rights groups, which have called on the Obama administration to intervene.

Greater FBI scrutiny of Muslim communities goes back to shortly after the 9/11 attacks, when then FBI Director Robert Mueller instructed field offices across the country to "count the mosques" and set up investigative goals accordingly, according to an article by investigative reporter Michael Isikoff.

Rules governing FBI surveillance were relaxed in 2008 to give more leeway to FBI "assessments" — a stage of surveillance that takes place before the opening of a formal investigation. These more lenient standards, critics say, allow information gathering on individuals without probable cause.

Rights groups are asking the Department of Justice to restore stricter rules on surveillance and to prohibit racial and religious profiling in all cases.

"What we need is for the FBI to go back to the standards set after the Hoover-era abuses.… guidelines put in place that required the FBI to engage in surveillance only if there’s evidence of wrongdoing," said Khera of Muslim Advocates.

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