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Report: FBI used ‘mosque outreach’ program to spy on Muslims

The Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted a “mosque outreach” program to compile information on American Muslim organizations and “their constitutionally-protected beliefs and activities, without any suspicion of wrongdoing,” according to documents released by the American Civil Liberties Union.

According to the ACLU, documents show that the FBI categorized First Amendment-protected and other “innocuous activities” as “positive intelligence” and shared it with other government agencies.  Mosque-goers interviewed by FBI agents were not informed that what they said would be collected as intelligence, recorded and disseminated.

The ACLU previously revealed that the FBI had turned past “community outreach” programs into domestic spying and intelligence gathering operations. The organization believes the “mosque outreach” program was active between 2004 and 2008.

The FBI “wrongly and unfairly cast a cloud of suspicion over innocent groups and individuals based on their religious beliefs and associations,” says the ACLU, “and placed them at risk of greater law enforcement scrutiny as potential national security threats.”

Among the revelations included in the documents:

  • The FBI “visited the Seaside Mosque five times in 2005 for “mosque outreach,” and documented congregants’ innocuous discussions regarding frustrations over delays in airline travel, a property purchase of a new mosque, where men and women would pray at the new mosque, and even the sale of date fruits after services… Despite an apparent lack of information related to crime or terrorism, the FBI’s records of discussions with mosque leaders and congregants were all classified as ‘secret,’ marked ‘positive intelligence,’ and disseminated outside the FBI.”
  • “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 “reports FBI contacts with 20 northern California mosques,” and names, addresses, and contact information for each mosque was described as “positive intelligence” and disseminated outside the FBI.

ACLU attorney Julia Harumi Mass told the Los Angeles Times, “The FBI’s targeting of Muslim Americans for intelligence gathering was not connected to any evidence of criminality, but instead targeted an entire group based on religion.”

The FBI is defending its actions. FBI Assistant Director Michael Kortan described the intelligence-gathering as “within the scope of an authorized law enforcement activity,” and said that “since that time, the FBI has formalized its community relations program to emphasize a greater distinction between outreach and operational activities.”

Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, told MSNBC that the bureau’s “documentation of religious leaders’ and congregants’ beliefs and practices violates the Privacy Act, which Congress passed to protect Americans’ First Amendment rights.”

Nearly all of the released documents were labeled “positive intelligence,” meaning the information would be uploaded and retained in FBI intelligence files.

The ACLU argues that categorizing “information about religious beliefs, practices, and otherwise innocent activities as ‘positive intelligence’” could be detrimental for Muslim groups. The dissemination of this “positive intelligence” outside the FBI would only increase the likelihood that other law enforcement or intelligence agencies would investigate innocent groups or individuals based solely on their religion, according to the civil liberties group.

Congress passed the Privacy Act of 1974 to forbid the government from collecting or retaining information about individuals’ First Amendment-protected activities in most circumstances.

However, rules governing FBI surveillance were relaxed in 2008, granting more leeway to the FBI for “assessments” — a stage of surveillance that occurs before the opening of a formal investigation — which allowed the FBI to gather information about individuals without probable cause.

“The FBI’s conduct, exposed in its own documents, threatens to chill American Muslims’ religious rights, exploits the good faith of Muslim groups and their members, and undermines community support for the government’s legitimate community outreach efforts,” said the ACLU.

This isn’t the first time the FBI has been exposed for controversial actions targeting Muslim communities. In 2003 journalist Michael Isikoff reported that FBI Director Robert Mueller and his top aides directed chiefs at the FBI’s 56 field offices to create demographic profiles for their localities, including a tally of the number of mosques.

This new controversy comes in the wake of an expose of NYPD spying on Muslim communities, a program that utilized White House funding.

The ACLU is calling on the FBI to stop using “community outreach” for intelligence purposes, and to be honest and transparent with community organizations regarding collected information, and to purge all improperly collected information.

Aside from polite requests for change, the ACLU is asking the Department of Justice Inspector General to investigate possible Privacy Act violations within the FBI’s San Francisco division and to conduct a broader audit of the FBI.

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