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FBI Ordered by Judge to Release Files on Surveillance & Infiltration of Muslim Communities, Including Mosques

Judge Richard Seeborg

The FBI has effectively been ordered to release numerous files on surveillance against Muslim communities in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, including infiltration of mosques.

Judge Richard Seeborg of the Northern District of California found the FBI could not invoke a “law enforcement” exemption in the Freedom of Information Act, which is commonly used by government agencies to prevent details of policies and operations from becoming public if harm would potentially occur [PDF].

The agency apparently failed to convince Seeborg that the law enforcement activity at issue in the records was sensitive enough to be shielded from disclosure because it would impair the FBI’s ability to enforce any law. He was also unconvinced it would chill “confidential sources” or lead to the FBI losing a “tactical advantage against criminals and terrorists.”

“The FBI’s refrain at oral argument that many of the withheld documents do not relate to particular investigations, and thus cannot be linked to any particular provision of law, only serves to emphasize the point that Exemption 7 [the “law enforcement” exemption] is not the appropriate umbrella under which to shield these documents from public view.”

For over four years, a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit has unfolded as the American Civil Liberties Union chapter of Northern California, the Asian Law Caucus and the now-defunct San Francisco Bay Guardian argued for the release of records. They believe files will reveal details related to how agents have investigated mosques, “assessed” religious leaders, infiltrated Muslim communities and trained FBI agents to use Islamic culture to advance operations, etc.

The organizations also believe they are likely to learn whether FBI agents are “recruiting Muslims and Arab children at Bay Area schools to serve in the agency’s Junior Agent Program.”

In February 2011, the organizations decided to also use this lawsuit to pursue the release of records about the FBI’s use of racial and ethnic data to map communities in northern California.

“From December 2010 through June 2012, the FBI released over 50,000 full or redacted pages of responsive records to the plaintiffs in 20 monthly installments, withholding about 47,794 pages on grounds of asserted FOIA exemptions,” according to Seeborg’s order.

Thus far, the ACLU has managed to uncover documents [PDF] showing how the FBI uses “community outreach” in order to “collect and illegally store intelligence information on Americans’ political and religious beliefs.”

Three examples, according to the ACLU:

• A 2009 San Jose FBI memorandum describing FBI participation in a career day sponsored by an Assyrian community organization recorded information about the organization’s expressive activities, the identities of several of its leaders, and the content of conversations with three community leaders and members about their opinions, backgrounds, travel histories, educations, occupations and charitable activities. Contact information for these individuals was forwarded to the FBI’s San Francisco Division.

• A 2009 Sacramento FBI memorandum regarding outreach at California State University, Chico documents a conversation with a student about the Saudi Student Association, including its size, purpose, and activities. This memorandum, which includes the student’s social security number, telephone number and address, was sent to the FBI in Washington, DC.

• A 2008 San Francisco memorandum to an intelligence file documents community outreach to a Pakistani community organization. The document reports information about the organization’s First Amendment-protected activities and the identities of the organization’s officers, directors and advisors.

The requests for records have also yielded documents on the racial profiling or racial “mapping” the FBI employs [PDF]. For example, the FBI division in Detroit, Michigan, collected information on Middle Eastern and Muslim communities in the state “because Michigan has a large Middle Eastern and Muslim population.” That, to the FBI, made it “prime territory for attempted radicalization and recruitment” by terrorist groups in the Middle East and southeastern Asia.

It could potentially be months, if not more than a year, before the ACLU sees any more documents on the FBI’s activities in Muslim communities. The FBI could choose to appeal. However, the judge asked for a case management plan and the next step could possibly involve a process for turning over documents the organizations requested back in 2010.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."