An FBI official tried this week to convince a skeptical audience that Muslim students are not under routine surveillance as agents pursued tips in the fight against terrorism.
The Monday night meeting at the Islamic Center of Irvine was an attempt by the FBI to quell criticism that erupted last month after agent Pat Rose was quoted as saying that the FBI was monitoring groups at UC Irvine and USC.
J. Stephen Tidwell, FBI assistant director in Los Angeles, denied that monitoring was taking place. He told the audience that "we still play by the rules."
But few said they believed him.
"We honestly don't trust that. Do I believe her [Rose], or do I believe you?" said Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, imam of the Orange County Islamic Foundation, pointing to an Orange County Register column that reported Rose's statements. Audience members applauded as Fazaga showed Tidwell the newspaper.
Another man said it was frustrating to hear denials from FBI officials about monitoring the Islamic community when most Muslims believed their mosques were under surveillance.
More than 100 people crowded into a small room to hear Tidwell speak. Perhaps an equal number stood in the hallway.
As he did several times during the evening, Tidwell tried to turn the focus away from the alleged monitoring, saying that the FBI had issued a denial May 26, the day after the column appeared. "We are well past that," he said and urged the audience to work toward a better relationship with the FBI.
"We've been trying to do that since 9/11," said a young man standing in the back.
Huda Shaka, a UCI student, said that there was no reason to believe Tidwell's denial if he had not asked the newspaper to print a correction.
Tidwell didn't say that Rose was misquoted and acknowledged that the agent's comments could have given the impression that Muslim groups were being monitored.
"From a certain viewpoint, it could be implied that she said that," Tidwell said. "[But] we are not monitoring the colleges mentioned in the article."
Some parents expressed concern for their children's future if their names were included in an FBI surveillance list of students or mosque attendees. Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Anaheim-based Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he had fielded dozens of calls from Muslims asking if it was safe to attend mosque services.
Others told Tidwell about FBI agents questioning mosque attendees about imams' sermons or who their favorite imams were.
Sheikh Sadullah Khan, imam at the Islamic Center of Irvine, and Fazaga, whose mosque is in Mission Viejo, invited Tidwell and other FBI agents at the meeting to attend their sermons.
"No invitation is needed. You can come whenever you want," Khan said.
Tidwell also downplayed Rose's comments that terrorism suspects lived in Orange County. "There is no current [terrorist] threat to Southern California," Tidwell said. "But we assume they're trying to get here to carry out a threat or they're already here."
Afterward, Tidwell said that the audience's skepticism was understandable. "This is going to be a work in progress to develop trust with each other. It's something that we have to continually work on to smooth out any bumps that happen along the way," he said.