From sea to spying sea: FBI used ‘outreach’ program to collect and store data on Muslims

FBI
(Photo: Politico)

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.

(You can download a report with links to the documents here.)

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:

About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an assistant editor for Mondoweiss and the World editor for AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.
Posted in US Politics, War on Terror | Tagged , , ,

{ 6 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. RE: “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 Intelligenc” ~ Kane

    NOT EXACTLY RELATED, BUT: Spying on the Spies, by Justin Raimondo, Antiwar.com, 4/04/12
    Outsourcing intelligence-gathering to the Israelis imperils national security

    (excerpts)…Israeli spying in the US is a topic the government, and the news media, don’t like to talk about, and yet the GAO has stated the Israelis run the “most aggressive espionage operation against the United States of any US ally” and that “classified military information and sensitive military technologies are high-priority targets for the intelligence agencies of this country.”
    In view of this, a new Wired report that Israeli companies are a key link in the government’s top secret high-tech spying operation, code-named “Stellar Wind,” is sure to raise eyebrows. Intelligence expert James Bamford relates:
    “In addition to constructing the Stellar Wind center, and then running the operation, secretive contractors with questionable histories and little oversight were also used to do the actual bugging of the entire U.S. telecommunications network. According to a former Verizon employee briefed on the program, Verint, owned by Comverse Technology, taps the communication lines at Verizon, which I first reported in my book ‘The Shadow Factory’ in 2008. Verint did not return a call seeking comment, while Verizon said it does not comment on such matters.
    “At AT&T the wiretapping rooms are powered by software and hardware from Narus, now owned by Boeing, a discovery made by AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein in 2004. Narus did not return a call seeking comment. What is especially troubling is that both companies have had extensive ties to Israel, as well as links to that country’s intelligence service, a country with a long and aggressive history of spying on the U.S.”

    . . . Verint, formerly Comverse/Infosys, is another familiar name to longtime readers of this column. Back in 2001, Carl Cameron of Fox News reported Israeli agents in the US had been tracking Mohammed Atta and his terrorist team prior to the 9/11 attacks, and may have had foreknowledge of the event. One leg of this steadfastly ignored four-part series detailed the Israeli government’s intimate connection to a company with the exclusive contract to work on the technical aspects of our eavesdropping operations: Comverse-Infosys, now known as Verint.
    Verint makes customized computers and software designed to cut into the system of circuits and switches that make up the nation’s phone system in order to capture, store, and record wiretapped conversations, simultaneously sending them to government agents. The problem, however, is that the producers of this valuable tool have constant access to the computers and the information contained therein for “maintenance” purposes. This amounts to what many in law enforcement regard as a “back door” left wide open. What this means, in practice, is that the entire system has been compromised, as a letter from 15 law enforcement officials to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft asserted. Cameron concluded his report with these words:

    “What troubles investigators most, particularly in New York, in the counter terrorism investigation of the World Trade Center attack, is that on a number of cases, suspects that they had sought to wiretap and survey immediately changed their telecommunications processes. They started acting much differently as soon as those supposedly secret wiretaps went into place.”

    Fox News has never retracted this story, which was broadcast in the first half of December, 2001…
    …The implications of this story – the pervasive penetration of America’s secure communications networks by Israeli intelligence and a possible connection to the 9/11 terrorist attacks – are too hot to handle for the “mainstream” news media…

    ENTIRE ARTICLE – link to original.antiwar.com

  2. Charon says:

    Not to sound like a kook (but I sorta am anyways, so I will inevitably come off sounding like a kook) but perhaps the FBI is looking for people like Ilan Grapel.

    Not that in anyways that legitimized illegal spying (and it goes both ways, the “Ilan Grapels” could be in the FBI for all I know). It still might be taboo around these parts, but I believe their is enough examples and evidence (as circumstantial as it may be) to prove that in some cases Zionists were responsible for ‘radicalizing’ gullible youths into carrying out their agendas and willing or unwilling Sayanim.

  3. giladg says:

    If the Times Square car bomb would have exploded, if the underpants bomber would have blown up the plane, many of the same people finding logic in the argument above would be asking why the intelligence community had not done more.
    You can stick your head in the sand for so long before the need to come up and breath.
    Political correctness only seems to deny the truth and prevent good citizens from improving their own communities. Many people need to know what is broken in order to then do the fixing.

    • Shingo says:

      If the Times Square car bomb would have exploded, if the underpants bomber would have blown up the plane, many of the same people finding logic in the argument above would be asking why the intelligence community had not done more.

      Done more in what way? Caused more death and destruction?

      The underpants bomber got on an international flight to the US without a passport. How does that happen?

  4. eljay says:

    >> Political correctness only seems to deny the truth and prevent good citizens from improving their own communities. Many people need to know what is broken in order to then do the fixing.

    Truer words about the Jewish state have never been spoken. Nicely done!

  5. yourstruly says:

    if today’s surveillance technology was available after pearl harbor, would our government have used it rather than incarcerate japanese-americans? which raises the question as to whether the intelligence services have considered placing gps chips in every arab/islamic-american? in addition once the public awakens to the horror of a permanent “1984″ society, what’s going to become of the how many redundant taxpayer supported sleuths whom history will have rendered obsolete?