ACLU report stirs civil rights concerns about FBI’s terrorism monitoring

Last Updated: October 21. 2011 12:42PM

ACLU report stirs civil rights concerns about FBI’s terrorism monitoring
George Hunter/ The Detroit News

Dearborn— Documents released by the American Civil Liberties Union confirm the FBI’s concern about possible terror cells in Michigan, and have reignited the debate over how to balance civil rights with security.

The ACLU on Thursday unveiled its “Mapping the FBI” initiative, which accuses the FBI of racial and ethnic profiling, a claim federal officials dispute.

Arabs locally and nationwide on Friday said they were outraged, but not surprised, by the ACLU report, which claims federal authorities are “mapping American communities around the country based on crude stereotypes about which groups commit different types of crimes,” according to an ACLU release.

“Nationwide, the FBI is gathering reports on innocent Americans’ so-called ‘suspicious activity’ and sharing it with unknown numbers of federal, state and local government agencies,” the ACLU said in a statement.

As part of the report, the ACLU released a 2009 memo from the FBI’s Detroit field office, which sought permission to collect information about possible terrorist activity in Michigan.

“Because Michigan has a large Middle Eastern and Muslim population, it is prime territory for attempted radicalization and recruitment by these terrorist groups,” the memo said.

The memo also outlined the FBI’s concerns about possible “violent terrorist acts within the state of Michigan.”

And the July 6, 2009, memo also noted that terrorist groups have a twisted view of Islam, using “an extreme and violent interpretation of the Muslim faith.” The memo was heavily redacted, and it’s unclear whether the permission sought by Detroit FBI to watch Arabs and Muslims was granted.

The ACLU and Arab leaders say the report proves federal authorities have systematically stepped over the line in their zeal to fight terrorism. But FBI officials say the agency’s mapping is a crucial tool used in the war on terror to target suspicious activity, not particular religious or ethnic groups.

The ACLU based its findings on documents obtained from the FBI through Freedom of Information Act requests made last year through 34 ACLU affiliates. It said the partially redacted documents put on its website show the FBI crossed the line in its assessment of Arab Americans in Michigan, blacks in Georgia, Chinese and Russian-Americans in California and large groups of Hispanic communities in Michigan.

The FBI defended its practices, adding that it “joins the ACLU in opposing racial or ethnic discrimination.”

The federal agency said guidelines from the attorney general’s office and its own Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide prohibit initiating investigative activity based solely on race or ethnicity or on the exercise of First Amendment rights, including freedom of religion.

“Often, though, certain terrorist and criminal groups are comprised of persons primarily from a particular ethnic or geographic community, which must be taken into account when trying to determine if there are threats to the United States,” the FBI said in a statement.

The FBI said the mapping reports it creates “are intended to address specific threats, not particular communities.” It said it uses available government data to locate and better understand communities that are potential threat victims and put resources in those areas.

“To fulfill its national security mission, the FBI cannot simply wait for people to report potential threats,” the FBI said.

Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said he wasn’t surprised by the ACLU report.

“This is nothing new,” Hamad said. “We have been struggling with this issue for many years. This kind of behavior is a violation of a core value of the U.S. Constitution.

“I understand that it’s the FBI’s job to protect the safety of our nation, and we are part of that. Safety is everyone’s responsibility. But if we’re going to truly be partners in this, then you can’t treat us as suspects. You can’t have it both ways — we can’t be a partner and a suspect at the same time.”

The Michigan office of the Council on Islamic Relations (CAIR-Michigan) released a statement Friday saying it already felt the FBI views the Muslims in Michigan as a “suspect community.”

“To map Arabs and Muslims as suspect communities tells us that the FBI believes that we are predisposed to criminality, which is not only untrue but is also an inaccurate means of investigating crime. These newest revelations as we approach the two-year anniversary of the tragic death of Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah is but another troubling chapter in how the FBI views and interacts with Michigan Muslims,” said Dawud Walid, the executive director of CAIR-Michigan.

Abdullah was shot to death during the FBI raid at a Dearborn warehouse in October 2009. The federal complaint that prompted the raid included several charges, including conspiracy to sell stolen goods.

Hassan Jaber, executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic & Social Services, said profiling doesn’t help fight terrorism.
“Unwarranted surveillance based on racial and ethnic profiling has the opposite effect, creating fear and distance among the targeted communities,” Jaber said in a statement.