[JURIST] The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] revealed Tuesday that it received documents [materials, PDF] confirming that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) [official website] used a “Mosque Outreach” program to gather intelligence on Muslim-American citizens [press release]. Using a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) [official website] lawsuit, the ACLU discovered that the FBI had been using the program to record conversations, observe behavior and collect data within mosques in California. The ACLU is alleging a violation of First Amendment rights to freedom of religion as well as the Privacy Act of 1974 [text].
Almost every FBI memorandum described above was labeled “positive intelligence,” which means the information in it would be uploaded and retained in FBI intelligence files. Categorizing information about religious beliefs, practices, and otherwise innocent activities as “positive intelligence” could have very serious negative consequences for Muslim groups and their congregants. FBI agents accessing this information in intelligence files would assume it was relevant to the FBI’s investigative and intelligence mission, casting a cloud of suspicion over the group or individual mentioned and potentially leading to more intensive scrutiny or investigation. The dissemination of this “positive intelligence” outside the FBI would only increase the likelihood that other law enforcement or intelligence agencies would investigate innocent groups or individuals based solely on their religion. Freedom of religion is a foundational element of American democracy, guaranteed by the First Amendment to our Constitution. In order to protect Americans’ religious freedom and other First Amendment rights, Congress passed the Privacy Act of 1974, which prohibits the government from collecting or retaining information about individuals’ First Amendment activities in all but very limited circumstances. The FBI’s documents demonstrate that it is ignoring these mandates and is misusing outreach to mosques and religious organizations to collect intelligence on American Muslims’ religious beliefs and activities. The FBI’s conduct, exposed in its own documents, threatens to chill American Muslims’ religious rights, exploits the good faith of Muslim groups and their members, and undermines community support for the government’s legitimate community outreach efforts.
A representative for the FBI defended its actions [LAT report] in a statement. The information recorded appears to be observations of cultural and religious traditions, but names of attendants of the mosques are filed in the FBI, as are transcripts of private conversations. The ACLU urged the FBI to stop masquerading information-gathering as outreach and did not suggest that further legal action will be taken.
The FBI has come under controversy for its investigation of Muslims in the US before. US Attorney General Eric Holder in August invoked the state secrets privilege [JURIST report] to block evidence in a lawsuit against the FBI over its investigation into Muslim mosques. The Department of Justice also filed a motion to dismiss claims and for summary judgment contending that without such privileged information many of the claims against the FBI could not continue. The ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations of California brought a lawsuit on behalf of three Muslim individuals in California against the FBI alleging that during its “Operation Flex,” FBI investigators infiltrated mosques and indiscriminately collected information on innocent Muslims simply because they were Muslim. In 2009, FBI Director Robert Mueller said the FBI will continue investigating mosques [JURIST report] when there may be evidence or information regarding criminal wrongdoings after the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan sent a complaint to Holder alleging the FBI had been asking members of the Islamic community to spy on religious leaders and followers.