This week the LA Times reported that the ACLU of Northern California had charged the FBI with -profiling Northern California Muslims in what the ACLU termed “an affront to religious liberty and equal protection of the law.” The Times reported that the Bureau had used their “community outreach efforts as a guise for compiling intelligence on local mosques.”
The ACLU’s allegations of spying during the 2004 to 2008 period are based on material they, and others, obtained pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request filed in 2010 and a lawsuit filed in 2011.
The ACLU’s incendiary allegations and breathless charges decry the FBI for the “secret gathering of intelligence [that] raised grave constitutional concerns because it…. undermines the trust and mutual understanding necessary to effective law enforcement [and it] violates the federal Privacy Act prohibitions against the maintenance of records about individuals.”
The sweep of the ACLU’s accusations is broad and the charges serious—-they just happen to be misleading and false.
The ACLU has issued a dishonest set of allegations that smack more of a political agenda than any real civil libertarian concerns. If one delves just an iota beneath the surface of the ACLU’s charges they are revealed as troubling distortions of the truth and manifestly inaccurate. It’s as if an intern at the ACLU wrote the report full of hyperbolic prose but failed to consult the underlying documents to see if what he/she was alleging was true.
A portion of the Times’ and ACLU’s puffiness can be ascribed to the term “intelligence” itself. It has become a pejorative that evokes memories of COINTELPRO, Abscam and Watergate. In fact it means no more than “information”—it is neither positive nor negative.
The documents ostensibly blow the cover on Special Agents using the “guise” of outreach to the Muslim community to undermine the community’s rights. But the documents are the reports of agents engaging in that outreach—-discussing the problems of Islamophobia, the inconvenience of waiting in security lines at airports, concerns regarding hate crimes, and then reporting on those meetings (in the most bland and perfunctory way) as any bureaucracy would demand. These are memos written by agents doing their job and presumably accounting for their time by reporting on what they did.
Read the documents, there is not a hint of concealment, eavesdropping or in any way exploiting the contacts that the agents have developed. The memos are disarmingly sympathetic and straightforward, “the writer [the special agent] wished ____well on the Hajj,” the FBI handed out FBI pens to ____ ,gave the writer several video and audio CD’s regarding both the Hajj and Islam in general….____was very friendly and once again expressed an interest in continuing a dialogue with the FBI.”
In reviewing the dozen or so FBI memos that are the purported “smoking guns” they are all similar in their straightforward accounting of open and friendly encounters of FBI Special Agents with a community they are reaching out to. There is nothing nefarious, no hint of derision or cunning.
Were the ACLU’s agenda not so transparently accusatory and aimed to rouse its donors, it could as easily have written a report on the seriousness with which the FBI takes its outreach efforts to the Muslim community—-chronicling open and pleasant meetings, offering assistance to congregants at religious gatherings and then sharing the congregants concerns with others in government—-that’s how the memos read.
The ACLU subtly deflects from the paucity of its documentation when it admits that even if the intelligence in the files is of “otherwise innocent activities” it could have very serious negative consequences. Those hypothetical consequences are farfetched, to say the least.
The ACLU asserts that the innocuous reports, by their very existence, would lead agents to “assume it was relevant to an investigative and intelligence mission,” the innocuous information might “cast a cloud of suspicion over the group or individual” and might lead “to more intensive scrutiny or investigation” and other law enforcement agencies might “investigate innocent groups or individuals.” It’s true. There could be stupid people out there who might misconstrue innocent information and misuse it, but that’s hardly a reason to condemn the folks who reach out and gather that information.
These bizarre hypothetical concerns are the nub of the ACLU’s allegations that the FBI is “chilling American Muslims’ religious rights.” The allegations are transparently false; the report is dishonestly hyperbolic and is beneath the dignity and historic tradition of the ACLU.
If this is the best that the ACLU can come up with after a Freedom of Information Act request and lawsuit, there is little to be concerned about. It owes the public, its supporters and the FBI an apology.