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New fears in Muslim community follow reports of U.S. monitoring

Hearings are sought to find the extent of alleged surveillance in San Diego and L.A.

May 29, 2008|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

A report that mosques in Los Angeles and San Diego are under federal surveillance has resurrected fears in the Muslim community about government monitoring and led two civil rights groups Wednesday to call for congressional hearings.

The request for public hearings followed a newspaper article last week that cited FBI and Defense Department files pertaining to surveillance of mosques and Muslims in Southern California.

Corey Saylor, Washington spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the article in the San Diego Union-Tribune "has again raised concerns that our community is being watched."

"We've heard about this in the past, but this article appears to be the first confirmation that surveillance is taking place," Saylor said. "Has faith moved from a personal choice to probable cause?"

Council chapters in Anaheim and San Diego joined the American Civil Liberties Union and Islamic Shura Council of Southern California in asking the U.S. House and Senate judiciary committees and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform for hearings. In a letter to the committee chairmen and ranking minority members, the groups said hearings are needed to determine the extent of the surveillance and whether people are being monitored because they are Muslim.

Information about the alleged spying surfaced in a case about classified files concerning terrorism that the newspaper said were stolen from a secure office used by military and civilian law enforcement officials at Camp Pendleton.

Ed Buice, Naval Criminal Investigative Service spokesman in Washington, said an investigation was underway to determine "whether individuals connected to the military may have been involved in illegal activities."

"I appreciate that the groups asking for congressional hearings want to know more about where all the dots are and how they all connect," Buice said. "But there is still much work to be done in this case, and we cannot discuss the details of the ongoing investigation."

An FBI spokesman in San Diego would not confirm that an investigation was ongoing and said the agency regularly reaches out to Muslims through town meetings.

The civil rights groups also want the hearings to determine if the U.S. military has engaged in domestic surveillance in violation of federal law. The Islamic Center of San Diego, where two of the 9/11 hijackers worshiped in early 2000, was the only mosque mentioned in the San Diego Union-Tribune article. The report did not specify which other mosques in Los Angeles and San Diego were allegedly under surveillance. But Saylor said it would not be surprising if mosques in Orange County were also monitored.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, members of the Islamic Center of Irvine and other local mosques have complained about FBI agents questioning them about imams' sermons and how often they attend services. In 2006, J. Stephen Tidwell, then-FBI assistant director in Los Angeles, met at the Irvine mosque with about 200 people who questioned him about government monitoring.

The meeting was prompted by media reports that the FBI was monitoring Muslim students at UC Irvine and USC. Tidwell denied that monitoring was taking place, telling the audience that "we still play by the rules."

Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the congressional hearings would compel the government "to say why they're amassing this information." "There's a lot of suspicion of the Muslim community," she said.

ACLU lawyers regularly go to mosques to advise worshipers that they do not have to answer questions from FBI agents about how long they have been in the United States, how often they attend services and what they get out of the sermons, Ripston said.

The newspaper said some missing files were made available to Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies. Larry Richards, a deputy and Marine reservist, is one of several people under investigation by the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in the thefts.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore said Wednesday that Richards used to work with the Los Angeles Terrorism Early Warning Group but is currently on administrative leave. He declined to comment further because of the ongoing federal investigation.

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hgreza@latimes.com

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