Prominent Chicago Area Organizations and Social Justice Activists Ask FBI to Make "Spy Files" Public

Affiliate: ACLU of Illinois
December 2, 2004 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Illinois
Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States


CHICAGO – Citing a need for public accountability and to guard against the wholesale surveillance of religious and political organizations, a diverse group of Chicago-area associations and individuals sharing a commitment to social justice and community service today filed federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) asking that agency to release surveillance files about those groups and individuals that were opened and maintained by FBI agents. The organizations and individuals reflect a broad coalition, including the local affiliates of legal organizations, groups committed to serving the Muslim and Arab population in the Chicago region, and local peace and justice coalitions.

Today’s action is a response to information indicating that the FBI has targeted particular groups and individuals for surveillance not because they have any connections to terrorism, but solely because they have policy differences with government agencies. Media reports from this past summer, for example, demonstrate that FBI agents in a number of states made a concerted effort to conduct surveillance on and interrogate activists who planned to stage peaceful demonstrations at the Democrat and Republican national conventions. The announcement in Chicago today is part of a national effort, spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union, to shed light on the breadth and reach of these surveillance activities by the FBI. National organizations participating in the effort include the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Greenpeace, the American Indian Movement, and Catholic Peace Ministries.

“The FBI’s response to these requests in Chicago and across the nation will provide an outline of how widespread the practice of conducting surveillance on peaceful religious and political organizations has been over the past few years,” said ACLU of Illinois Legal Director Harvey Grossman in announcing the filing of the FOIA requests. “We want federal law enforcement officials to pursue and arrest those who intend to do violence. But law-abiding persons in our nation have the right to associate freely with others, attend political and cultural events, and explore new ideas and view points without such activity being recorded and maintained by government agents. Such intelligence files, as we have seen throughout history, have been used to deny individuals government employment or disseminated in an effort to embarrass individuals engaged in advocacy against government. Simply knowing the potential to be caught up in such surveillance will keep some persons from engaging in legitimate activities they otherwise might explore or embrace.”

The ACLU of Illinois expressed special concern today over the FBI’s targeting of Muslims and Arabs in the Chicago community. In the past several years, the ACLU has become aware of thousands of interviews of Arab and Muslim persons in the Chicago area by federal law enforcement officials. The pattern of these interviews began to emerge more than a decade ago, during the run-up to the first Gulf War in 1991. The process accelerated after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. While many of these so-called “voluntary” interviews have been described and discussed in the media, many Arabs and Muslims have been subject to “ambush” interviews – with law enforcement personnel arriving unannounced at their homes, businesses and places of employment. The ACLU of Illinois noted that these interviews represent a threshold step in the creation of intelligence dossiers on individuals and organizations in the Muslim and Arab community.

The groups filing FOIA requests today include: the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois; the American Friends Service Committee Great Lakes Region; the Community Renewal Society; the Council on American Islamic Relations Chicago Chapter; the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago; the Fellowship of Reconciliation Chicago Area Chapter; the Muslim Bar Association; the Muslim Civil Rights Center; and, the Oak Park Coalition for Peace and Justice. In addition to these organizations, FOIA requests also have been filed on behalf of a number of religious and political activists in the Chicago area. Those individuals are: Community Renewal Society Executive Director, Reverend Calvin Morris; Kareem M. Irfan, chair of the Council on Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago; Muslim Civil Rights Center President, Rasheed Ahmed; Muslim Civil Rights Center Vice President Seema Imam; CAIR Chicago Executive Director, M. Yaser Tabbara; Zubair Khan, president-elect of the Muslim Bar Association; Michael McConnell, Executive Director for the American Friends Service Committee Great Lakes Region; Kevin McDermott of the Oak Park Coalition for Peace and Justice; Ed McManus of the Fellowship of Reconciliation Chicago; and, ACLU of Illinois Executive Director Colleen Connell.

“In the drastic investigatory aftermath of 9/11, members of America’s Arab and Muslim communities have felt unfairly targeted and under siege,” said Kareem Irfan. “While all of us, as Americans, desire a safe and secure homeland, we simply can not tolerate members of our community being singled out for FBI spying and investigations on the basis of racial or ethnic background or simply for practicing our constitutionally guaranteed rights to practice our faith or speaking out on matters of public concern. This commendable FOIA initiative undertaken by the ACLU will hopefully help empower minority organizations and individuals by becoming better informed about investigative acts against them and consider warranted remedial action.”

“The American Friends Service Committee Great Lakes Region knows that spying on political and religious activities is a sad reality since 9/11,” said Michael McConnell, Great Lakes Regional Director. “Two years ago, a meeting of our organization — with a long history of peaceful protest on behalf of social justice causes — was infiltrated by the Chicago Police Department in advance of a protest regarding globalization during the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue. Do Americans really want to return to a time when anyone critical of government policy was subjected to this sort of intrusive surveillance?”

“Arab and Muslim community members are continuously having to endure the disruptive and distressing consequences of the overly intrusive investigations by the federal government – especially in the past three years,” added M. Yaser Tabbara of CAIR Chicago. “Leaders and activists in our community have been singled out for surveillance, monitoring and questioning. In many instances, the result has been the deportation of these individuals on minor civil immigration violations, tearing apart families and doing nothing to make our nation more safe and secure.”

“The idea that law abiding Americans enjoy freedom from government inquiry is a linchpin of our constitutional freedoms,” said Kubair Zahn of the Muslim Bar Association. “It simply is inadequate to target persons on the basis of their political viewpoints or their religious affiliation.”

“We hope that the release of these spy files will shine on the potential widespread abuse of authority by the FBI in investigating persons because of their political or religious beliefs,” added Rasheed Ahmed of the Muslim Civil Rights Center. “What is more important, we may get some idea of how federal resources are being diverted from areas where resources are scarce.”

In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, outgoing Attorney General John Ashcroft relaxed long-standing guidelines that prohibited the FBI from spying on political or religious organizations without an adequate reason for such an investigation. These guidelines were developed as a result of a troubling history of spying abuse by the agency. During the 1950s, for example, the FBI supplied Senator Joseph McCarthy with information about individuals – some of which was used to ruin the careers of innocent persons. In the 1960s, the FBI engaged in a campaign to smear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. using surveillance and spying. After a Senate investigation in the 1970s revealed these abuses – along with details about spying on anti-Vietnam War groups – the Justice Department developed and implemented guidelines designed to curb such abuses in the future. These are the standards relaxed by Attorney General Ashcroft.

Unlawful surveillance of political and religious organizations and community groups by the FBI and Chicago police was rampant in Chicago for many decades up through the mid-1970s, when federal lawsuits by the ACLU of Illinois and other organizations resulted in court supervision over these intelligence-gathering activities. Groups like the League of Women Voters, Operation PUSH and the Independent Voters of Illinois as well as individuals including former Chicago City Council member Leon Despres, Jesse Jackson Jr., Studs Terkel, Dick Simpson and Dr. Quentin Young were subjected to unlawful surveillance and the disruption of lawful political activities. The FBI admitted in a federal court settlement that it had conducted more than five hundred (500) “black bag” jobs – warrantless, clandestine searches of homes and offices – in Chicago as part of this political spying.

Concerns about FBI surveillance based upon religious and political expression were heightened in November 2003 when the New York Times disclosed a classified FBI memo directing state and local police officials on methods of targeting and monitoring the activities of anti-war protesters during the run up to the conflict in Iraq. These suggestions were presented under the rubric of fighting terrorism.

“The FBI should not be wasting its time conducting surveillance of peaceful religious groups and political protesters,” added the ACLU’s Grossman. “This type of spying suggests that we should be suspicious of peaceful Americans who express their views on a range of issues, a message that chills speech and creates an unfettered ability for law enforcement to investigate anyone in this country.”

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release