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FBI documents reveal profiling of N. California Muslims

Reports obtained by the ACLU show agents gathered intelligence under the guise of outreach programs and shared it with other agencies. A legal expert calls the practice 'outrageous.'

March 28, 2012|By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times
  • FBI Assistant Director Michael Kortan defended the agents' activities, but said the agency has adjusted its community outreach efforts.
FBI Assistant Director Michael Kortan defended the agents' activities,… (Susan Ragan )

SAN FRANCISCO —Federal agents routinely profiled Muslims in Northern California for at least four years, using community outreach efforts as a guise for compiling intelligence on local mosques, according to documents released Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union.

From 2004 to 2008, agents from the San Francisco office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation regularly attended meetings and services, particularly in the Silicon Valley area, "collected and illegally stored intelligence about American Muslims' First Amendment-protected beliefs and religious practices … and … disseminated it to other government agencies," the ACLU said in a written statement.

The ACLU of Northern California, the Asian Law Caucus and the San Francisco Bay Guardian filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2010 and a lawsuit in 2011 after the groups received repeated complaints from the Muslim community about intrusive FBI activity, ACLU attorney Julia Harumi Mass said.

"The FBI's targeting of Muslim Americans for intelligence gathering was not connected to any evidence of criminality, but instead targeted an entire group based on religion," Mass said in an interview. The pattern of surveillance shown in the documents "is an affront to religious liberty and equal protection of the law."

The activities came after the U.S. attorney general's guidelines governing investigations known as "assessments" were loosened in 2008. Assessments can be undertaken without evidence of actual wrongdoing.

In a brief written statement, FBI Assistant Director Michael Kortan defended the agents' activities, but said that the agency has adjusted its community outreach efforts.

The 2004-2008 documents released by the ACLU "reflect that information was collected within the scope of an authorized law enforcement activity," Kortan said. However, "since that time, the FBI has formalized its community relations program to emphasize a greater distinction between outreach and operational activities."

Professor Fred H. Cate, who specializes in information, privacy and security law at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, called the FBI's actions "outrageous."

It's one thing to visit a mosque and get wind of a credible threat, Cate said, and "anyone would expect them to follow up."

But that's a far cry from: " 'We were at a mosque and saw people worshiping in a different way than we do so we take their name down.' If my name is being shared with another law enforcement agency solely because of my religious practice, it's hard to say that that's not both outrageous and unconstitutional."

Many of the FBI documents released Tuesday by the ACLU are titled "Mosques Liaison Contacts." In their original form, they contained names and phone numbers of Muslim Americans affiliated with centers of worship from San Francisco to Seaside, Calif. Those names have been redacted.

Many of them, such as a list of 20 mosques that includes addresses, phone numbers and representatives' names, are marked "positive intelligence" and contain the note, "disseminated outside FBI."

The documents show that FBI agents visited the Monterey Mosque in coastal Seaside on five occasions. Marked "secret," they describe the mosque's purchase of a new building, and include the frustration that members have felt "with delays during airline travel."

One document describes a sermon at the Seaside house of worship: "the evils associated with the practice of earning interest on money." An informal chat between the agents and mosque members covered "a wide range of subjects…from coffee to terrorism," said the report, which was marked: "POSITIVE INTELLIGENCE (DISSEMINATED OUTSIDE FBI) LIAISON WITH OTHER AGENCY."

Isa Eric Shaw is on the executive committee of the Muslim Community Assn. of the San Francisco Bay Area, a Santa Clara community center that includes a mosque and the Grenada Islamic School. Shaw said the organization actively invites law enforcement officials, including the FBI, to meet with his group.

"We try to work as closely as we can with law enforcement to safeguard our families, communities and nation," said Shaw, who is a management consultant and lives in Santa Clara.

Shaw's center was mentioned in several of the documents released Tuesday, he said, including one memo that concerned a 2005 FBI visit and described the school and its layout.

The agents' visits "were under the guise of so-called outreach activities," Shaw said, but "they were collecting intelligence information and including it in investigative files. More worrisome, one of the files had an international terrorism case number on it. The files were further disseminated outside the FBI to other unknown law enforcement agencies."

Shaw said that he would understand it if the FBI came in "investigating some known actor" suspected of criminal activity, "but this was them coming in randomly profiling people."

"We, like others, assume that we can go to our churches, synagogues and mosques and express our religious beliefs without the FBI collecting intelligence on us," he said. "We feel betrayed."

maria.laganga@latimes.com

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