Domestic surveillance: End the FBI’s abuses, but work with them

Memo to Robert Mueller

A recent headline on CNN read, “FBI planting spies in U.S. mosques,” Muslim groups allege. This outrage was sparked by revelations that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had sent an agent provocateur into a mosque in southern California who was coercing worshippers in becoming informants and inciting them to make violent statements. The planting of spies in mosques is just the latest in the FBI’s long list of actions that have angered both civil libertarians and members of the American Muslim community.

In March 2003, FBI launched a mosque counting project whereby agents were asked to document the number of mosques in their areas, “to help measure the number of terrorism investigations that the various field offices should be expected to open and pursue.” By their actions, the FBI needlessly linked terrorism to mosques despite the paucity of any evidence tying the 9-11 hijackers to the mainstream American-Muslim community and the mainstream Muslim community’s absolute and unequivocal rejection of terror.

Ahead of the 2004 Presidential election, the FBI had launched a so-called October Plan indiscriminately “interviewing” Muslims. In 2005 FBI agents secretly monitored radiation levels at mosques to determine whether nuclear bombs were being assembled there. Nothing was found. In 2008, an American Muslim was arrested and tortured in the UAE at the apparent direction of the FBI.

My concerns also relate to a January 2009 Fox News story that reported the FBI’s severing of its ties with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a leading American Muslim organization. It was more disconcerting, when a month later a FBI agent stopped by my office purporting to ask questions about my resignation from the Chairmanship of CAIR, an action I had taken eight months ago.

My reasons for leaving CAIR were no secret. In an interview with my local newspaper, I had noted that in order to make the organization a more effective voice in the American socio-political discourse, CAIR must empower a new and younger generation of leaders. My departure was clearly related to disagreements over governing philosophy and yet the FBI perplexingly found something nefarious in a matter that is not entirely out of the ordinary.

The FBI wants to avoid “formally constructed partnerships” with CAIR stemming from concerns over “distinct narrow issues” specific to CAIR’s “national leadership.” Such vague pronouncements have provided a pretext for some members of Congress to turn the ambiguity into a “government-wide policy.” In order to remain consistent with the constitutional hallmarks of due process, it is essential that our lawmakers and law enforcement agencies do not make hasty pronouncements that can needlessly hurt innocent people. If CAIR has “terrorist ties” as some members of Congress claim then the FBI should shut CAIR down. However, if there is no evidence linking CAIR to any terrorist activity, then the FBI should re-engage with CAIR.

From 2005 to 2008 as the Chairman of CAIR, I participated in numerous meetings and press conferences with the FBI. I conducted sensitivity and diversity training for the FBI and at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia. During this time, no one from the FBI ever alerted me about “distinct narrow issues.” In all of my association with the organization, I was not aware of any unlawful activity.

The FBI Director Robert Muller recently said, “The communities from which we need the most help are those who trust us the least. But it is in these communities that we must re-double our efforts.” It is unclear as to how the steps taken by the FBI will lead to a building of trust.

Perhaps tired of the growing list of provocative actions against the community or perhaps indignation over being side-stepped, CAIR led several American Muslim groups in asking members of the community to “consider suspending all outreach activities with FBI offices.” Not all major Muslim groups joined this call perhaps realizing that such a call is counter-productive. Suspending dialogue can only make matters worse. Moreover, it is unclear as to what the groups meant by suspending “all outreach?” If the FBI comes knocking on the door of an American Muslim organization seeking diversity training should they be turned away? The groups seeking boycott went on to say, “The credibility of all Muslim organizations who maintain ties to the FBI that do not react decisively is undermined in the eyes of the community.” Does this mean that the American Muslims who just won the 2008 Community Leadership Awards from the FBI are turncoats, if they accept the award?

Whatever legitimate concerns FBI has about CAIR, they need to give the organization’s 11-member national governing board a chance to weigh the facts. During my tenure at CAIR, no such overture was made by the FBI.

Even if CAIR feels that it is unfairly taking one on the chin, it should not issue self-serving calls asking members of the American Muslim community to break off relationships with the FBI, especially when such relationships, in small measures, do help in promoting mutual understanding. While the results of such interactions are not always spectacular, these interactions are nonetheless helpful for building civic harmony.

Speaking from my personal experience, having conducted dozens of hours of training for members of law enforcement, such interactions allow outsiders like me to understand the myriad of challenges facing law enforcement. It helps to ensure that our demands are tempered by the recognition of the enormous challenges law enforcement officials face in an effort to ensure the public
safety of all. On the other hand, even the few hours that law enforcement officers spend in diversity training classes allow them better perspective on the concerns of minority communities, helping them to more effectively engage.

The FBI’s hasty pronouncements and ensuing misguided responses by some American Muslim organizations have placed undue burdens on the American Muslim community. It is incumbent that both the FBI and American Muslim groups meet to work out their differences before their respective intransigence undermines security and civic harmony. The new Attorney General Eric Holder, who has called for, “adherence to the rule of law,” and a cessation of “needlessly abusive and unlawful practices” must step forward to assure the American Muslim community that the Obama administration will break away from the bad policies that plagued the Ashcroft-Gonzalez Justice department.

Parvez Ahmed is Associate Professor of Finance at University of North Florida. He is the co-author, with Seth Anderson, of the book “Mutual Funds: Fifty Years of Research Findings” (Springer 2005). In addition, he is a frequent commentator on the American Muslim experience. You can read his articles on his blog. This article also appeared in The Huffington Post.


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