Moral Low Ground

Civil Liberties

FBI San Francisco Division Illegally Monitored Muslims’ Religious Practices

A California mosque (Photo: Clinton Steeds)

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released records from the FBI’s San Francisco division showing that the Bureau secretly and illegally used an outreach program to monitor the constitutionally-protected religious activities of California Muslims.

According to the Associated Press, the FBI San Francisco division used its Muslim community outreach efforts to collect information about religious practices. FBI agents attended mosque services and noted the content of sermons.

The ACLU obtained documentary evidence of this illegal activity after filing a Freedom of Information Act request. The US Privacy Act prohibits federal agents from keeping records on religious practices absent of clear law enforcement objectives.

“Everyone understands that the FBI has a job to do, but it is wrong and counterproductive for the Bureau to target American Muslim religious groups for secret intelligence gathering and place innocents at risk of investigation as national security threats,” an ACLU news release stated.

“In San Francisco, we have found that community outreach was being run out of the FBI’s intelligence division and was part of a secret and systematic intelligence gathering program, conducted without any apparent evidence of wrongdoing. The bureau’s documentation of religious leaders’ and congregants’ beliefs and practices violates the Privacy Act, which Congress passed to protect Americans’ First Amendment rights.”

The FBI has been reaching out to Muslim communities throughout the United States in the years following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington, DC. But the Bureau has also been monitoring American Muslims and collecting intelligence inside mosques and other locations.

In this case, FBI agents identified themselves as such during meetings with Muslims, handing out business cards and asking if they can be of assistance in the community. The Bureau claims its actions were not illegal.

“These 2004-2008 documents reflect that information was collected within the scope of an authorized law enforcement activity, whether investigation or liaison, including activities designed to strengthen relationships in various communities,” FBI spokesman Michael Kortan told the Associated Press. “Since that time, the FBI has formalized its community relations program to emphasize a greater distinction between outreach and operational activities.”

But the ACLU asserts that those people being monitored had no way of knowing that FBI agents were storing noted details of their religious practices, pointing to a seemingly innocuous FBI memo detailing the contents of one Seaside, California mosque sermon.

“The FBI attended the afternoon prayer as well as a sermon [which] warned of the evils associated with the practice of earning interest on money,” the memo reads.

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