Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union asked the FBI on Monday to release documents detailing any post-Sept. 11 surveillance of Southern California mosques and Muslims.
Local Islamic leaders said they enlisted the ACLU's help after the FBI provided little information in response to their allegations that the agency was monitoring them and their places of worship. They say some Muslims are afraid to go to mosques because they fear government monitoring
Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, said numerous Muslims reported being questioned by the FBI about their religious practices and sermons given during prayer services.
The ACLU filed the request under the federal Freedom of Information Act on behalf of individual Muslims and six Islamic groups, including the Shura Council, an Anaheim-based federation of more than 60 mosques, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group whose Southern California chapter is also in Anaheim.
The ACLU has used similar strategies to get government documents on other groups monitored by the FBI.
Records obtained last year on behalf of 150 organizations showed that FBI counterterrorism agents had been covertly watching several activist groups, including the Catholic Worker and Greenpeace, since the Sept. 11 attacks for links to violent or disruptive activities.
In January, the FBI acknowledged that agents monitored mosques, Muslim-owned businesses and homes throughout the country for radiation levels.
Government officials said they were acting on intelligence that Al Qaeda planned to use a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the U.S. The surveillance program, which consisted of checking for radioactivity in the air, began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and continued through 2003.
After the radiation monitoring was disclosed in December 2005, FBI officials met with angry Muslim and Arab-American leaders in Washington to explain the surveillance program.
Syed of the Shura Council said he hoped the Freedom of Information Act request would lead to a similar meeting in Los Angeles with local FBI officials.
"The problem is that we don't know the extent of the surveillance," Syed said.
In an e-mail, FBI officials said they would "address" the ACLU's request but did not say whether records would be turned over. "The FBI does not investigate anyone based on their lawful activities, religious or political beliefs," said Assistant Director J. Stephen Tidwell of the L.A. office.
He added that FBI officials met with members of several local Middle Eastern communities, including Muslims, last month to address their concerns at an agency-sponsored town hall meeting in Los Angeles.
Tidwell said "open, honest and continuous dialogue is the only way to build and maintain trust and confidence" between the communities and the FBI.
But Syed said the FBI had a "practice of coming in through the back door to question people based only on the premise of suspicion."
"They have to understand that we too are interested in preventing a terrorist attack," Syed said.
Bill Araiza, constitutional law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said the FBI should release the documents, if any exist, under the Freedom of Information Act.
The act "is a fairly aggressive statute in terms of disclosure," Araiza said. "The only possible exception I see would be if releasing these records interferes with an ongoing criminal investigation."
Mathieu Deflem, a University of South Carolina professor who studies law enforcement's role in combating terrorism, said the FBI's role in preventing another attack often puts the agency at odds with the Muslim community. "The relationship with the religion is very delicate," he added.
But Deflem said the FBI was justified in monitoring mosques because extremists may try to blend in among worshippers.
For instance, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, who were in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, were virtual unknowns in their community even though they worshiped at a mosque near San Diego.