For those old enough to remember, reports of the latest FBI snooping must have brought back bitter memories of a now-hated program known as COINTELPRO.
COINTELPRO is the FBI acronym for a series of covert programs culminating in the 1970s directed against US domestic groups. In these programs, the Bureau went beyond the collection of intelligence to secret action defined to “disrupt” and “neutralize” target groups and individuals.
The techniques were adopted wholesale from wartime counter-intelligence, and ranged from the trivial (mailing reprints of Reader’s Digest articles to college administrators) to the degrading (sending anonymous poison-pen letters intended to break up marriages) and the dangerous (encouraging gang warfare and falsely labeling members of a violent group as police informers).
Today, reports of the latest FBI snooping programs create déjà vu all over again. According to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, the San Francisco FBI conducted a years-long Mosque Outreach program that collected and illegally stored intelligence about American Muslims’ First Amendment-protected religious beliefs and practices.
The ACLU charges that FBI documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that from 2004 through at least 2008, the San Francisco FBI conducted a “mosque outreach” program through which it compiled intelligence on American Muslim religious organizations and their leaders’ and congregants’ constitutionally-protected beliefs and activities, without any suspicion of wrongdoing. The ACLU previously disclosed that the FBI turned its “community outreach” programs into a secret and systematic domestic intelligence-gathering initiative.
Now, FBI documents obtained by the ACLU of Northern California, the Asian Law Caucus, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian show that the FBI used the similar guise of “mosque outreach” to gather intelligence on mosques and Muslim religious organizations.
The organization also claims the documents also show that the FBI categorized information about Muslims’ First Amendment-protected and other entirely innocuous activities, as well as mosque locations, as “positive intelligence” and disseminated it to agencies outside the FBI. As a result, the ACLU says, the agency “wrongly and unfairly cast a cloud of suspicion over innocent groups and individuals based on their religious beliefs and associations, and placed them at risk of greater law enforcement scrutiny as potential national security threats. None of the documents indicate that the FBI told individuals interviewed that their information and views were being collected as intelligence, and would be recorded and disseminated.”
The ACLU and human rights and civil liberties groups generally have taken the position that the “FBI’s targeting of American Muslim religious organizations for secret intelligence gathering raises grave constitutional concerns because it is an affront to religious liberty and equal protection of the law. The bureau’s use of outreach meetings to gather intelligence also undermines the trust and mutual understanding necessary to effective law enforcement. Additionally, the FBI’s retention of information gathered through “mosque outreach” in its intelligence files violates federal Privacy Act prohibitions against the maintenance of records about individuals’ First Amendment-protected activity.”
The ACLU says the San Francisco FBI documents described above bear titles such as, “Mosque Outreach Liaison,” “Mosque Outreach Contacts,” or “Mosque Liaison Contacts.” Some of these documents indicate that the FBI begins its “outreach” with questions about possible hate crimes against the Muslim community, but none of the documents appear connected to a mosque protection effort initiated after 9/11 by the FBI Civil Rights Unit to guard against anti-Muslim hate crimes.
That effort operated under a “44” FBI case file number (see for example, this 2007 San Francisco FBI memorandum). In contrast, the file numbers on the “mosque outreach” documents were redacted, and many were classified “secret,” which indicates this effort was conducted under the FBI’s national security-related investigative and intelligence authorities. Although sometimes heavily redacted, all of the documents make clear that the FBI used its outreach meetings to document religious leaders’ and congregants’ identities, personal information, and religious views, practices, affiliations, and travel, as well as the physical locations and layouts of mosques.
Documentation obtained through FOIA has proved to be a treasure trove of information. But, sadly for those who enjoy spy-thrillers, their content is largely prosaic and teetering on boring. Here are but a few of many examples:
• 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. It also documented the subject of a particular sermon, raising First Amendment concerns. 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.
• 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 the ACLU said might be appropriate to record in a normal community outreach context.
• Two 2008 FBI memoranda described contacts with representatives of the Bay Area Cultural Connections (BAYCC), which was formerly the Turkish Center Musalla. The first describes the history, mission, and activities of the BAYCC, the ethnicity of its members and its affiliation with another organization. The second memorandum indicates the FBI used a named meeting participant’s cell phone number to search LexisNexis and Department of Motor Vehicle records, and obtained and recorded detailed information about him, including his date of birth, social security number, address and home telephone number.
All the memoranda listed above were described as “positive intelligence” and disseminated outside the FBI. Some were classified as “secret.”
The ACLU says, “Almost every FBI memorandum described above was labeled ‘positive intelligence’, which means the information in it would be uploaded and retained in FBI intelligence files.
The ACLU points out that in its previous “Mapping the FBI” alerts, “we called on the FBI to stop using community outreach for intelligence purposes, to be honest with community organizations regarding what information is collected and retained during community meetings, and to purge all information collected improperly. The latest revelations make the need for these reforms even more urgent.”
William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now writes on subjects ranging from human rights to foreign affairs for a number of newspapers and online journals.