Civil liberties and Muslim groups criticized Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on Thursday for suggesting that authorities should spend more time monitoring mosques and their attendees, possibly with wiretaps.
The comments came during a speech on domestic preparedness that Romney (R) gave Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Romney, said to be considering a run for president in 2008, used the speech to offer suggestions for beefing up domestic intelligence-gathering, saying that too much effort is spent protecting buildings and too little on surveillance that might detect an attack in the planning stages.
After asking whether students from "terrorist-sponsored countries" should be tracked more closely in the United States, Romney asked: "How about people who are in settings -- mosques, for instance -- that may be teaching doctrines of hate and terror?
"Are we monitoring that?" Romney continued, according to a video posted on the foundation's Web site. "Are we wiretapping? Are we following what's going on? Are we seeing who's coming in, who's coming out?"
In a telephone interview Thursday, Romney said he was not calling for a loosening of the rules governing when and how the government can conduct surveillance. But he defended his focus on mosques as potential surveillance targets, saying that attacks by Islamic terrorists in the United States, London and elsewhere justify a particular focus on Muslim places of worship.
Authorities "should be watching what's being taught in a mosque more closely than what's being taught at the local 4-H Club," Romney said.
After Romney's speech was reported on the front page of Thursday's Boston Globe, groups in Boston and Washington expressed alarm, seeing in his speech a call for blanket surveillance of mosques and Muslims.
"It's irresponsible for the top elected official in any state to suggest blanket wiretapping of houses of worship," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Ali Noorani, the executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said his group plans to demand a retraction.
"There's a need for the U.S. government and the intelligence system to better understand the Muslim community," Noorani said. "The way not to do it is to wiretap and surreptitiously surveil an entire community."
In general, mosques and other houses of worship do not have special protection from surveillance under U.S. law. As in other cases, wiretaps are supposed to be authorized when there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed, or -- in cases involving the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court system -- when the surveillance relates to an ongoing terrorist investigation.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, several federal investigations have used informants, surveillance and electronic eavesdropping to gather information about mosques.
Earlier this month, for instance, federal authorities in California said they had watched two mosques in Sacramento for months, recording both sound and video in an investigation of possible terrorist activity.