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Homeland Security rescinds Nation of Islam intelligence analysis

The Department of Homeland Security withdraws a 2007 analysis after deciding it broke rules on information collection.

December 17, 2009|By Sebastian Rotella
  • A report on the Nation of Islam came out at the time Louis Farrakhan ceded control of group.
A report on the Nation of Islam came out at the time Louis Farrakhan ceded… (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — The Department of Homeland Security issued but recalled a 2007 intelligence analysis about the Nation of Islam after deciding the document dealing with the black Muslim group broke rules on intelligence activity in the United States, officials said Wednesday.

Internal documents revealed that intelligence chiefs found analysts had "unintentionally and inadvertently" violated rules governing the collection, retention and distribution of information concerning "U.S. persons and organizations." The error took place during the George W. Bush administration, and steps have been taken to ensure it does not happen again, a Homeland Security spokesman said.

"DHS has implemented a strong and rigorous system of safeguards and oversight to ensure similar products are neither created nor distributed," spokesman Matthew Chandler said. "DHS is fully committed to securing the nation from terrorist attacks and other threats, and we take very seriously our responsibility to protect the civil rights and liberties of the American people while fulfilling this mission."

The analysis under scrutiny, known as an intelligence note, was prepared in October 2007 by Homeland Security's office of intelligence and analysis, according to department officials and the documents, which were released Wednesday by the Obama administration in response to freedom of information lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy and civil liberties group.

The office helps coordinate intelligence between federal agencies -- principally the FBI -- and state and city law enforcement. Intelligence personnel in that office routinely write analyses based on information gathered by other agencies but do not work in the field, officials said.

The 2007 note was titled "Nation of Islam: Uncertain Leadership Succession Poses Risk," according to a Homeland Security report.

At the time, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan had ceded control to an executive board and gone into seclusion to recover from complications of prostate cancer treatment. He has remained active in the organization, although his exact role is unclear.

Nation of Islam officials did not return calls for comment.

The intelligence note was distributed by e-mail to 482 recipients -- including federal intelligence officials, congressional staff and "at least one state government entity and one educational institution," a Homeland Security report said without naming them.

Immediately after the note was sent, the office's intelligence oversight officer and its associate general counsel "expressed concerns" about its "content and dissemination," documents said. Officials then contacted the recipients and asked them to delete the note.

A review found that the analysis had violated internal intelligence guidelines that protect civil liberties and govern the collection and retention of information on the Nation of Islam and other "U.S. persons," a supervisory official wrote.

"The intelligence note on the Nation of Islam should not have been written," the official wrote. "The organization -- despite its highly volatile and extreme rhetoric -- has neither advocated violence nor engaged in violence."

The official stressed that the violation had not been intentional and that during more than two years, this was the first among thousands of intelligence analyses about which questions had been raised.

The U.S. government long has been interested in leaders of the religious movement that melds black nationalism with the Islamic faith, said Zaheer Ali, a Columbia University researcher who focuses on the Nation of Islam. He said Wednesday's revelation recalled FBI probes in the 1960s and '70s.

"As a historian, it's not surprising that the federal agencies under a new name -- in this case Homeland Security -- would be so interested," Ali said.

Though no investigation has produced evidence suggesting the Nation of Islam poses a threat, such concerns linger, he said.

"In the minds of many, Islam poses a threat. Black people pose a threat. And the combination of black people and Islam pose a threat in the imagination of people," Ali said. "I don't think our intelligence community is immune to these kinds of perceptions."

sebastian.rotella@latimes.com

Manya A. Brachear of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.

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