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.”