Several Islamic groups in Southern California sued the FBI on Tuesday to force the agency to release more documents about the alleged surveillance of individuals and local mosques following the Sept. 11 attacks.
In May 2006, 11 Muslim leaders and community groups sent the FBI a Freedom of Information Act request for documents about suspected surveillance of them and sued after the bureau released just four pages, one of them largely blank.
The ACLU, which filed the request and lawsuit, believes the FBI is withholding information. The civil rights group said in a statement that the FBI "squandered an opportunity" to build trust with the Muslim community by not releasing the information.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana and alleges that the FBI's document search was inadequate. The suit says there is concern that FBI investigations "threaten to erode the constitutionally protected freedom of religion that Muslim Americans enjoy."
Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University in Washington, said that in the last five years the FBI had increasingly responded to FOIA requests by saying there were no records. "So, four pages is a gold mine," he said.
The archive is an independent research institute that collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the FOIA.
Last year, local Islamic leaders said they turned to the ACLU for help after the FBI provided little information in response to their concern about government monitoring. They said mosquegoers reported being questioned by the FBI about their religious practices and the sermons given during prayer services.
"We're baffled why this information is not being released. The onus is on them to show our community is not under surveillance," said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Anaheim-based Islamic Shura Council of California. The council, identified in the suit as a federation of more than 60 mosques, and Syed are plaintiffs.
The four pages the FBI released pertain to Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, and his group. Two pages recount a 2006 meeting between Ayloush and an FBI agent about improving relations between the FBI and Muslims. Another page had four lines about an offending e-mail the group had received.
"We hope that CAIR has not been under surveillance, because every thing it's engaged in fits within the 1st Amendment," Ayloush said. "We have views that aren't popular around certain circles of government, but they are legal."
Ayloush said he asked the FBI for information about himself because "I want to know why I get stopped at airports every time I return from an overseas trip." He said he hoped to learn that "I'm being stopped for a reason other than I'm Muslim." He and CAIR are also plaintiffs.
FBI officials in Los Angeles declined to comment on the lawsuit.
But Assistant Director J. Stephen Tidwell said last year that the FBI does not investigate individuals or groups "based on their lawful activities, religious or political beliefs."