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New Call for Internal DOJ Investigation of FBI’s Targeting of Religious and Ethnic Groups for Intel Gathering

Restoring community trust requires acknowledging that FBI policies were violated.
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April 26, 2012

Today we sent a letter to the Department of Justice Inspector General asking him to investigate the FBI’s improper collection of intelligence about American Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern, and South Asian communities, and compilation of records describing community members’ First Amendment protected speech and activities in violation of the Privacy Act.

Our letter is based on FBI documents from 2004 through 2010 that the ACLU released last month and in December, which were uncovered through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the ACLU of Northern California, the Asian Law Caucus, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The records reveal two disturbing patterns.

First, the FBI targeted American Muslims and Americans of Arab, Middle Eastern, and South Asian origin for intelligence gathering based on their religion or national origin under the guise of “mosque outreach” or “community outreach” programs at mosques, community organizations, and college campuses.

Second, through these “outreach” efforts, the San Francisco and Sacramento FBI recorded and shared intelligence about Americans’ religious beliefs and practices, associations, and opinions, including:

• the content of a religious sermon;

• the content of identified speakers’ speeches at community events;

• people’s religious affiliations and associations;

• the expressive content of conversations with community members, religious congregants, and students.

These types of records violate the Privacy Act, which prohibits the federal government from keeping records describing how people exercise their First Amendment rights absent very limited circumstances.

Unfortunately, this sort of improper FBI targeting of Americans is not a new phenomenon. A 2010 DOJ Inspector General report showed that the FBI had investigated domestic advocacy groups with insufficient documentation and questionable justification, and improperly focused on the First Amendment activities of people who were not under investigation.

The FBI should not collect intelligence on people simply because of their faith or where they’re from. The improper targeting of American Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern and South Asian communities not only betrays the trust of these communities, it also violates our country’s commitment to equal protection of the law. And law enforcement investigations that wrongly single out Americans based on religion or national origin without suspicion of wrongdoing do not make us safer. The FBI should instead develop honest and transparent community relationships and investigate factually predicated criminal and terrorist activity.

Restoring community trust and righting these wrongs requires acknowledging that FBI policies and the law were violated. So, our letter asks the DOJ’s Inspector General to investigate the abuses that we revealed and to take measures to curb them, specifically:

  1. Auditing FBI practices in San Francisco and Sacramento and throughout the nation to determine whether the FBI is improperly targeting American Muslim, Arab, Middle-Eastern, and South Asian communities, and their religious and community organizations, based upon First Amendment-protected activities;
  2. Investigating Privacy Act violations within the FBI’s San Francisco and Sacramento Divisions
  3. Providing policy recommendations to ensure that the FBI stops misusing community outreach and mosque outreach programs to gather intelligence on innocent Americans and to prevent it from recording and disseminating as intelligence Americans’ First Amendment-protected activities.

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