FBI Using "Mosque Outreach" to Gather Intelligence Print
News - Local
Written by B|V|N Newsroom   
Thursday, 29 March 2012 08:14
FBI's Activities Raise Constitutional Concerns and Violate Federal Privacy Law
NEW YORK – For several years, the FBI's San Francisco office conducted a "Mosque Outreach" program that collected and illegally stored intelligence about American Muslims' First Amendment-protected beliefs and religious practices, according to government documents released today by the American Civil Liberties Union from a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Northern California, Asian Law Caucus and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. 

The San Francisco FBI's own documents, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, show that it recorded Muslim religious leaders' and congregants' identities, personal information and religious views and practices. The documents also show that the FBI labeled this information as "positive intelligence" and disseminated it to other government agencies, placing the people and organizations involved at risk of greater law enforcement scrutiny as potential national security threats.  None of the documents indicate that the FBI told individuals interviewed that their information and views were being collected as intelligence, and would be recorded and disseminated.

"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," said Julia Harumi Mass, staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California. "The FBI is casting a cloud of suspicion on American Muslim religious organizations based on their faith alone, which raises grave constitutional concerns. The bureau's documentation of religious leaders' and congregants' beliefs and practices clearly violates the Privacy Act, which Congress passed to protect Americans' First Amendment rights."

The "Mosque Outreach" documents, from between 2004 and 2008, detail information and activities including:

  • FBI visits to the Seaside Mosque five times in 2005, documenting the subject of a particular sermon and congregants' discussions regarding a property purchase for a new mosque.  Despite an apparent lack of information related to crime or terrorism, the FBI's records of these discussions show they were classified as "secret," marked "positive intelligence," and disseminated outside the FBI.
  • FBI meetings with members of the South Bay Islamic Association four times from 2004 to 2007, documenting discussions about the Hajj pilgrimage and "Islam in general."  FBI documents show this information was classified as "secret," marked "positive intelligence," and disseminated outside the FBI.
  • FBI contacts with representatives of the Bay Area Cultural Connections (formerly the Turkish Center Musalla), describing the group's mission and activities, as well as the ethnicity of its members. A memo indicates the FBI used a meeting participant's cell phone number to search LexisNexis and Department of Motor Vehicle records and obtained and recorded detailed information about him, including his date of birth, social security number, address and home telephone number. FBI documents show this information was classified as "secret."

"The FBI can only be successful if the American public supports its mission and methods, and community outreach plays an essential role in building the trust and mutual understanding to ensure the FBI is effectively and appropriately protecting both our security our civil rights," said Mike German, ACLU senior policy counsel and a former FBI agent. "By exploiting the good faith of Muslim groups and their members, the FBI is undermining community support for the government's legitimate law enforcement activities."

In light of these new documents, the ACLU is renewing its call on the Justice Department's Inspector General to investigate Privacy Act violations in the FBI's San Francisco Division and to initiate a broader audit of FBI practices nationwide to determine the scope of the problem and identify solutions. The ACLU is also urging the FBI to stop using community outreach for intelligence purposes, to be honest with community organizations regarding what information is collected and retained during community meetings, and to purge all information collected improperly.


In addition to the federal Privacy Act concerns, these documents show FBI indifference to Californian's state constitutional privacy rights. Under a constitutional amendment adopted by the voters 40 years ago, Californians are protected by an explicit, inalienable right to privacy which prohibits state and local law enforcement agencies from collecting or retaining intelligence without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

As a federal agency, the FBI claims they are free to violate state privacy rights. But, the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) operated by the FBI's San Francisco office includes active participation by several local  agencies – including the San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose police departments.

"If the FBI violates the federal Privacy Act by collecting intelligence in the manner revealed by these documents," notes Nasrina Bargzie, staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, "why should anyone believe that local agencies have not become entangled in JTTF activities at the FBI's direction that violate state privacy rights?"

A previously secret agreement uncovered by the ACLU-NC and ALC last year shows that the FBI has been given the power to direct local officers in the JTTF to engage in activities that violate state and local civil rights standards. In San Francisco, legislation to ensure local police are not entangled in FBI activities that violate state and local laws has been endorsed by more than 80 organizations and has been approved by a majority vote of the Board of Supervisors. Formal approval after a required second vote is expected soon. Mayor Ed Lee has been contacted by more than 700 San Franciscans asking him to sign the measure but he has not yet publicly taken a position.