ACLU Sues FBI and Justice Department for Information on Ongoing Surveillance of Muslims in Northern California

October 21, 2004 12:00 am

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Says that FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces May Be Violating Constitutional Rights of U.S. Citizens and Immigrants

SAN FRANCISCO — The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California today filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking expedited processing and release of FBI and Justice Department documents pertaining to the ongoing investigation, interviews and questioning of Muslims and U.S. citizens of Middle Eastern descent in Northern California.

The ACLU’s suit stems from concerns that the interviews and investigations being conducted by Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which are made up of state and local officers working with FBI agents and officers of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, may violate the constitutional rights of immigrants and U.S. citizens and have a chilling effect on the exercise of activity that is protected under the First Amendment.

“It’s time for the FBI to come clean about this unprecedented campaign and the activities of their joint task forces in our state,” said John Crew, an attorney for the ACLU of Northern California. “If they want the public to believe that these interviews are truly voluntary, why won’t they publicly release policies requiring officers to respect the constitutional right of individuals to refuse to answer these chilling questions? If the right to have an attorney present during the questioning will be respected, why do they resist quickly releasing policies that say that?”

The ACLU’s lawsuit charges the federal government with stalling the release of public records that would reveal the scope, purpose and policies behind controversial tactics currently being pursued throughout Northern California by the FBI’s joint task forces. The documents sought by the FOIA request would (among other things) reveal whether the task forces have any written policies that:

  • Control the maintenance, storage, use and destruction of the sensitive religious, political and personal information gathered in these interviews.
  • Ensure that state and local officers do not violate stronger California constitutional rights and local policies while operating under Attorney General John Ashcroft’s drastically loosened intelligence guidelines for the FBI.
  • Ensure that the rights to lawfully practice one’s religion or to express dissent from government policies are not, by themselves, appropriate subjects for law enforcement inquiry.

The ACLU based its lawsuit on regulations that require expedited treatment of FOIA requests when substantial due process rights are at stake or when the request concerns a matter of widespread and exceptional media interest in which there are possible questions about the government’s integrity, which would affect public confidence.

The FBI refused to expedite the processing of the FOIA request, saying that there was “no particular urgency” to inform the public about its activities. In 2003, the typical time for the FBI to respond to FOIA requests without expedited treatment was 370 to 558 days, according to the Justice Department.

“The ACLU of Northern California filed the lawsuit today because the government has given us no other alternative,” said Amitai Schwartz, ACLU cooperating attorney. “We hope that this lawsuit will lead to the release of government documents that will shed light on the FBI’s activities in Northern California.”

The ACLU and other legal, community and religious organizations in Northern California have received multiple reports in recent weeks that joint task force agents, sometimes in groups of three, are showing up by surprise at the homes, workplaces and mosques of local Muslims. According to reports, the agents are pressuring subjects to immediately answer prying questions about religious and political beliefs, practices and associations. Individuals who assert their right to have an attorney present have nonetheless faced pressure to immediately comply with the FBI joint task forces requests for this sensitive, personal information.

“No one should have to answer questions about the places they worship at or their views on the conflict in Iraq,” said Shirin Sinnar, President of the Bay Area Association of Muslim Lawyers. “It is simply not the job of government to be probing into First Amendment activity.”

The ACLU encourages individuals who are contacted by the FBI to seek legal advice before agreeing to respond to questions. The National Lawyers Guild has made available a free legal hotline at 415-285-1041.

For a copy of the complaint visit

For a copy of the FOIA request, visit

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