SANTA ANA, Calif. – A federal judge today rejected FBI arguments seeking to withhold nearly 100 documents that detail the bureau’s surveillance of Muslim leaders and organizations in Southern California. The judge also directed the FBI to submit the documents for review, and specifically directed the bureau to conduct an immediate search of all its offices nationwide for documents relating to the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Greater Los Angeles and its executive director.
Until now, the documents have been released only in heavily redacted versions or not at all. Nonetheless they have confirmed suspicions among Muslim Americans that the agency is monitoring even the most innocuous free-speech activities in their community, including religious services, speeches and fundraising for charities. The court’s decision came in response to a 2007 lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Southern California.
“This ruling sends a clear message to the FBI that it must provide a transparent accounting of this surveillance and must cease religious profiling. We believe these surveillance records will show how the FBI infiltrated Southern California mosques and invasively monitored our clients as if members of the Muslim community were presumed criminals,” said Jennie Pasquarella, an ACLU/SC staff attorney.
In May 2006, 11 Muslim American leaders, mosques and local organizations who sought to allay fears of FBI spying in their community filed a joint Freedom of Information Act request. They sought all FBI records of the agency’s surveillance and investigations of themselves and other groups since January 2001. But after one year, the agency turned over only four pages of documents.
The ACLU/SC filed a lawsuit in September 2007 on behalf of the Muslim American leaders and groups who made the FOIA request, claiming the government’s incomplete and long-delayed response violated the Freedom of Information Act. Since then, the government has provided hundreds of pages of documents, but they are so heavily redacted that there is only a sentence or a single name on many of the pages. Even so, the documents show that the FBI conducted extensive surveillance on lawful First Amendment activities of Muslim Americans where there appears to be no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Unredacted portions of the FBI documents, for example, describe plaintiffs’ political stance on the immigration reform movement, fundraising activities to support earthquake relief in India, statements advocating nonviolence that were made in public speeches, and Muslim student conferences.
“The American Muslim community, its leaders and institutions have been a regular target of surveillance that is unconscionable and un-American. We have faith in our judicial system to bring transparency and accountability to any unlawful practices that may have violated Americans’ civil liberties,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Greater Los Angeles, who is a plaintiff in the case.
Earlier this year, news surfaced that the FBI had sent a convicted criminal named Craig Monteihl into Orange County mosques to record conversations and collect information about possible terrorist acts. Instead, he baited religious leaders, created suspicion with his extremist rhetoric and sent a chilling effect into an already wary community. Afraid of being targeted, American Muslims are now avoiding making political statements publicly, staying away from mosques and refraining from donating to charities and nonprofits. Formal relations between the FBI and several Muslim organizations – who had agreed to cooperate after September 11 — have broken down.
“Recent actions of FBI, unfortunately, have created a climate of fear in our communities. In America, we should not feel like we live under a regime that persecutes people for their speech and religion, rather than a democracy that promotes these ideals,” said Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, chairman of the board of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. “We want our civil liberties, our freedom to talk openly about our religion, our beliefs and our lives fully respected.”
“Only full disclosure will satisfy us and alleviate the pervasive fear in our communities and congregations,” said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, likewise a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Truth can never be redacted.”