FBI accused of spying on Muslims at community outreach forums

December 2, 2011

The FBI is using its extensive community outreach to Muslims and other groups to secretly gather intelligence in violation of federal law, the American Civil Liberties Union alleged Thursday.

Citing internal bureau documents, the ACLU said agents in California are attending meetings at mosques and other events and illegally recording information about the attendees’ political and religious affiliations. FBI officials denied the allegations. They said that records kept from outreach sessions are not used for investigations.

The documents reveal new details of the FBI’s efforts to build a more trusting relationship with Muslims and other communities — a major priority since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Federal officials have said that the effort is aimed at protecting Muslims’ civil rights and smoothing lingering resentment over the law-enforcement crackdown after the attacks, along with helping the government fight terrorism.

Some of the papers describe agents speaking at career days, briefing community members on FBI programs and helping them work with police to fight drug abuse. But the files also depict agents recording Social Security numbers and other identifying information after they meet people at the events and, in at least one instance, noting their political views. It appears that the agents are conducting follow-up investigations in some instances, but heavy redactions in the documents make it impossible to determine how far any examination might have gone.

In one case, an agent wrote that he checked California motor vehicle records on someone the agent encountered at a Ramadan dinner at a San Francisco Islamic association. An attendee is described as “very progressive.” Another is called “very Western in appearance and outlook.”

At another Ramadan dinner in San Francisco, an agent recorded the names of Muslim groups listed on pamphlets distributed at the event — and appeared to note that several people associated with one of the groups were under investigation.

The FBI turned the heavily redacted documents over to the ACLU as part of a lawsuit filed by the civil rights group and two other organizations to uncover what the groups consider to be inappropriate or illegal FBI tactics in the fight against terrorism.

Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s national security project, said some of the actions depicted in the documents violate the Privacy Act, a law that bars federal agencies from maintaining information about activities protected by the First Amendment, such as freedom of speech and association. FBI officials said the law allows agencies to keep information that is considered relevant and necessary to their mission, in certain circumstances.

A dangerous ‘guise’

“It’s one thing for the FBI to say to a community group, ‘We’re going to come and meet you to establish ties,’ ” Shamsi said. “But it’s a very dangerous way to proceed to collect intelligence under the guise of community outreach.”

FBI spokesman Michael P. Kortan said the bureau’s meetings with community leaders are not designed to gather intelligence but rather “to enhance public trust in the FBI in order to enlist the cooperation of the public to fight criminal activity.” He said that the practice provides “information to the public in support of crime prevention efforts, and opens lines of communication to help make the FBI more responsive to community concerns.”

Kortan said FBI policy requires that an “appropriate separation be maintained between outreach and operational activities” and that although “facts surrounding an outreach meeting or event may be documented,” that is only for internal purposes to ensure “that personnel time and resources are being used effectively and in compliance with applicable laws, regulations, policies and program requirements.”

Some Muslim groups reacted to the documents with anger. The Council on American-Islamic Relations said the FBI’s actions will have a “chilling effect” on Muslims’ constitutionally protected activities.

Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, a San Francisco-based civil rights group, said the papers “confirm the worst fears of Muslim community members.”

The FBI, under intense pressure to prevent another attack on U.S. soil, has sought to strike a balance between civil liberties and law enforcement in the decade since the Sept. 11 strikes. Civil liberties groups have long accused agents of overreacting, but FBI and Justice Department officials say they have helped safeguard the nation from another attack.

The documents released Thursday show agents in a variety of settings in Muslim and other communities. In one 2009 memo, an agent in Sacramento appears to be monitoring the Saudi Student Association at California State University through the outreach effort.

The agent writes of meeting with someone at the student union building and records that person’s birth date, Social Security number, telephone number and address — all in the same sentence. The person is described as giving the agent detailed information about the association.

Yet some of the documents are more mundane, including a 2009 memo detailing FBI contacts with Assyrian organizations in San Jose, which notes how the Assyrian language is “very similar to ancient Aramaic.”

Another memo describes a 2007 meeting hosted by the FBI in San Jose for 27 Muslim organizations that featured FBI presentations, a question-and-answer session and lunch catered by a local kabob restaurant. The writer provides a detailed “demographics” breakdown of participants, including what percentage are Sunni Muslim versus Shiite, and lists all the organizations in attendance.

One group listed was the Oakland-based Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California. Sara Mostafavi, a board member, said she found that troubling.

Jerry Markon covers the Department of Homeland Security for the Post’s National Desk. He also serves as lead Web and newspaper writer for major breaking national news.
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