FOIA Documents Show FBI Illegally Collecting Intelligence Under Guise of "Community Outreach"

December 1, 2011 12:03 pm

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FBI Storing Information on Activities Protected by the First Amendment, Memos Obtained by ACLU Show

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NEW YORK – The FBI has been illegally using its community outreach programs to secretly collect and store information about activities protected by the First Amendment for intelligence purposes, according to FBI documents released today by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The trust that community outreach efforts aim to create is undermined when the FBI exploits these programs to gather intelligence on the very members of the religious and community organizations agents are meeting with,” said Michael German, ACLU senior policy counsel and a former FBI agent. “The FBI should be honest with community organizations about what information is being collected during meetings and purge any improperly collected information.”

FOIA documents showing instances of inappropriate intelligence gathering include:

• San Francisco FBI memos, written in 2007 and 2008 by agents who attended Ramadan Iftar dinners under the guise of the FBI’s mosque outreach program, documenting participants’ names, conversations and presentations. The 2008 memo also recorded participants’ contact information and descriptions of their opinions and associations.
• A 2009 San Jose, Calif. FBI memo describing FBI participation in a career day sponsored by an Assyrian community organization. Agents detailed conversations with three community leaders and members about their opinions, backgrounds and charitable activities.
• A 2007 San Jose, Calif. FBI memo describing a mosque outreach meeting attended by 50 people representing 27 Muslim community and religious organizations, identifying each person by name and organization and analyzing their “demographics.”

“Except under certain special circumstances, the Privacy Act bars the FBI from maintaining records like these describing how Americans exercise their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association,” said Nusrat Choudhury, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. “Congress passed this law to prevent records obtained by the government for one purpose from being used for another reason without a person’s consent, but that is precisely what the FBI has done.”

There is no indication in the FOIA documents that community members were informed that the FBI’s outreach activities were used for intelligence gathering purposes or could be potentially used to target these people and their organizations for investigations.

One of the organizations whose members were noted attending the mosque outreach meeting was the Muslim Community Association (MCA). “Like all Americans, we want to help the FBI. Now we feel betrayed,” said MCA Board Secretary Isa Shaw. “We support the idea of building trust through FBI community outreach programs, but the government should not be taking advantage of it to violate our First Amendment rights like this.”

The ACLU is calling on the Department of Justice Inspector General to investigate Privacy Act violations in the FBI’s San Francisco and Sacramento Divisions and to initiate a broader audit of FBI practices nationwide. It is also urging the FBI to stop using community outreach for intelligence purposes, to be honest with community organizations regarding what information is collected and retained during community outreach meetings and to purge all improperly collected information.

The request for these documents was made by the ACLU of Northern California, the Asian Law Caucus and the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

A detailed description of examples (with links to FOIA documents) showing the FBI's improper collection of information at community outreach meetings is available at:

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