The New York Police Department (NYPD) isn’t the only law enforcement agency to spy on Muslims living in the US. The San Francisco Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) is also in on the constitutionally suspect practice–the latest example of how, in the US, there is a “separate justice system for Muslims,” as the New York Times’ Andrew Rosenthal put it.
Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union released FBI documents that show how the agency’s “mosque outreach” turned into a potentially illegal program that collected data on Muslims’ religious practices and beliefs and stored that information. The information was then disseminated to other law enforcement agencies.
Here’s how the program worked, according to the ACLU. FBI agents began its “outreach” with visits to mosques to ask questions about the Muslim community, including concerns over hate crimes. The agents then wrote up a report on the meeting. But the reports also collected information on Muslims’ religious beliefs, practices, travel and the location of mosques.
The ACLU summarized a number of the documents they obtained using the Freedom of Information Act. Two examples:
The FBI met with members of the South Bay Islamic Association four times from 2004 to 2007. FBI agents documented as “positive intelligence” and disseminated outside the FBI an individual’s complaint of travel delays during the Hajj pilgrimage caused by the No Fly list, as well an individual’s conversation about the Hajj, “Islam in general,” Muslims’ safety in the U.S., and community fears regarding an FBI investigation of imams in Lodi, California. Two memoranda from 2006 and 2007 contain no descriptive information apart from the name and location of mosques contacted by the FBI, which might be appropriate to record in a normal community outreach context, but these documents were instead classified as “secret,” labeled “positive intelligence,” and disseminated outside the FBI…
A 2007 FBI memorandum documented two visits to the Anjuman-e-Najmi mosque in Fremont, California, identified congregants by name, described their conversations, associated them with the Dawoodi Bohra community of Shi’a Muslims, and reproduced the contents of a lengthy e-mail describing the community’s religious beliefs and history. This information was labeled “positive intelligence” and disseminated outside the FBI.
According to the ACLU, the “mosque outreach” program violates the Privacy Act of 1974, “which prohibits the government from collecting or retaining information about individuals’ First Amendment activities in all but very limited circumstances.”
But the FBI’s practices are also consistent with their own guidelines on conducting investigations. The guidelines “envision an FBI that vacuums up all the information made available to it by permissive investigative rules, disseminates the information to other law enforcement agencies, and retains it indefinitely,” in the words of a Brennan Center for Justice report. The FBI’s “mosque outreach” program is no surprise, then, given the permissive oversight climate the FBI operates under.
The release of the FOIA documents exposes, for the second time, how the FBI uses “outreach” programs to collect intelligence. Last year, the ACLU charged (pdf) the FBI with using its “community outreach” program to systematically collect and store information about Muslim activity protected by the First Amendment.
For more on these latest documents, check out Democracy Now!’s broadcast this morning: