FBI's New Surveillance Plan Chills Religious and Political Activity, Bay Area Civil Rights Groups Warn

October 5, 2004 12:00 am

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FBI Refuses Prompt Disclosure of Information About Questioning Practices

SAN FRANCISCO – The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC-SF), the Bay Area Association of Muslim Lawyers (BAAML), and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) today announced that they will closely monitor a new government plan to use “aggressive — even obvious – surveillance” tactics in advance of the November 2nd general election.

“The sweeping nature of the government surveillance plan focuses broadly on mosques and individuals who are unlikely to have any connection to criminal activity,” said Dorothy M. Ehrlich, Executive Director of the ACLU of Northern California. “Whenever there is a terrorist threat, we want the government to do everything it can to protect us, but casting blanket suspicion on an entire religious and ethnic community is poor law enforcement as well as counterproductive.”

The civil rights groups are urging individuals to consult with a lawyer before talking with agents, and are distributing 20,000 “”Know Your Rights”” brochures in Arabic, Urdu and English, which explain what to do if the FBI or immigration agents contact persons for questioning.

“We are encouraging people to contact an attorney to represent them at these interviews,” said Stacy Tolchin of the National Lawyers Guild. “In the past, the government has used these interviews to find out the immigration status of friends and family and to initiate deportation proceedings.”

According to several national news reports, the FBI plans to launch aggressive and open surveillance of persons and their families suspected of being terrorist sympathizers, but who are not suspected of any crime. The reports say that mosques will be revisited and worshippers questioned. This is particularly disturbing for the Muslim community, which is beginning Ramadan this month, and has also been controversial within the FBI. As part of the plan, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has begun a new round of questioning and arrests of persons suspected of immigration violations.

“These racially and religiously biased tactics do nothing for improving the security of the public,” said Nancy Hormachea of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee of San Francisco. “Since September 11, thousands of Arab and Muslim men were rounded up, detained, held incommunicado and physically abused and not one of these men was found to be in any way involved in terrorism.”

Shirin Sinnar, President of the Bay Area Association of Muslim Lawyers added: “Rather than focusing on terrorist threats, the broad sweep of the FBI’s questioning seems designed to intimidate a community and chill religious and political expression.”

Over the past three years, Middle Eastern and South Asian neighborhoods and communities have borne the brunt of the federal government’s response to 9/11. Directly after the attacks, more than a 1,000 and possibly upwards of 2,000 men were rounded up secretly by the Justice Department only to be later found to have no connection to the attacks. The “October Plan,” as news reports call it, is the fifth incidence of an explicit FBI dragnet targeted at American Muslims and Middle Easterners.

In efforts to find out more about the FBI’s questioning of targeted communities, on July 16, 2004 the National Lawyers Guild, Bay Area Muslim Lawyers, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the ACLU of Northern California requested a meeting with the FBI. The FBI never responded.

On August 20, 2004, the ACLU of Northern California filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the FBI and local Joint Terrorism Task Forces. The FOIA requests seek documents related to the questioning of recent immigrants and U.S. citizens of Arab and Muslim descent, as well as any documents on the surveillance of political and religious activity. Given the immediacy of the questioning programs, the ACLU of Northern California sought expedited processing of the requests. However, in a letter dated September 22, 2004, that request was also denied.

“The FBI should come clean about their questioning plans, promptly disclose information related to the operation of the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, and meet with interested civil rights organizations,” said Mark Schlosberg, Police Practices Policy Director of the ACLU of Northern California. “Adopting and implementing secret questioning plans only creates more fear and alienates the very communities that law enforcement needs to be working with.”

Previously, the FBI launched four separate rounds of questioning, which routinely involved interrogating interviewees with questions about their religious practices and political beliefs. In many of the interviews, the FBI actually collected information about interviewee’s associational activity, including copying the data from cell phone contact lists.

Nationally, the ACLU, NLG and ADC are working closely with Amnesty International, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Arab-American Institute, Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council to monitor and provide services for the impacted communities.

For a copy of the Know Your Rights brochures, the FOIA request and the FBI letter, go to www.aclunc.org.

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