Privacy SOS

by Nancy Murray | Newton Dialogues, June 26, 2011

 
Nearly a decade after 9/11, there has been no national discussion about whether we are on the right track in the so-called war against terrorism. There has been little attempt to probe root causes and the motives of terrorist plotters like the would be Times Square bomber and the would be bomber of the New York subway system – both of whom linked their actions to our wars and foreign policy.
 
With the “terrorist threat” functioning as a 21st century Red Scare, a new architecture of mass surveillance and social control has been erected in the shadows – you can read all about this on our website PrivacySOS.org. The so-called “Muslim menace” has produced a financial windfall for the emerging national security industrial complex and transformed our nation in ways hidden from most of us. So I want to thank Newton Dialogues for recognizing the critical importance of this subject and for hosting this event this evening. 
 
In the time allotted to me I want to look do three things: first, take a look at statistics that indicate that the nation’s obsessive equation of Muslims and violence is way overblown; second, look at the methods used by the FBI in their dealings with the Muslim community; and finally, to summarize the findings of interviews we have conducted with Muslims in the greater Boston area which are posted on PrivacySOS.org – often with pseudonyms replacing actual names. 
 
First, a statistical reality check. According to the FBI, terrorist incidents in the US accounted for 3,178 deaths in the period 1980 – 2005. Apart from those killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11, 2001 attacks, 48 people lost their lives to terrorism. During the same 25-year period, 500,000 people were murdered in the United States. While we as a national are transfixed by the terrorist threat, everyday violence in America is a public safety issue of crisis proportions.
 
Muslim communities have borne the brunt of the nation’s focus on terrorism. Rather than building up relations of trust, the FBI through its Joint Terrorism Task Forces has adopted the counterproductive strategy of treating Muslims as an actual or potential “enemy within.” Their raids have received sensational media coverage, leading the public to assume that Muslims are chiefly responsible for terrorist incidents. 
 
But FBI reports show this is in fact not the case. The 2002 – 2005 FBI Terrorism Report reveals that 23 of 24 recorded terrorist incidents were perpetrated by non Muslims. It details terrorist incidents that would have dominated the news if Muslims had been involved. 
 
Here’s one example — little attention outside of Florida was paid to the elaborate plan to bomb a Florida Islamic education center and “kill all rags” drawn up by Robert Jay Goldstein, a Tampa podiatrist. An FBI search of his home in August 2002 uncovered 15 explosive devices and a list of 50 Islamic mosques and other centers. His cache of weapons included hand grenades, mines and more than 30 guns, among them semi-automatic weapons, 50-caliber machine guns and sniper rifles. Goldstein was not referred to as a “terrorist” in the limited national coverage and neither was there a mention of his religious background. 
 
Unless you read the special report on “The Secret World of Extreme Militias” in the October 11, 2010 issue of Time, you may not have heard of the white supremacist James Cummings of Belfast, Maine, who had an ambition to kill the president. According to the Time report, he succeeded in obtaining and assembling the ingredients for a “dirty bomb” when he was shot dead by his wife whom he had reportedly long abused. 
 
Plentiful evidence about the extent of the “credible threat” represented by white supremacists spurred to take action by Obama’s election and more than one hundred heavily-armed antigovernment militias organizing to “take back America” was spelled out in chilling detail by the Time Magazine article. But despite this, it was reported earlier this month in the Washington Post (June 7 2011) that the Department of Homeland Security has significantly cut back on the number of personnel looking at domestic terrorism unrelated to Islam. This was the DHS response to the right-wing outcry and demands for Janet Napolitano’s ouster that followed the publication of its April 2009 report on “Rightwing Extremism.”
 
Earlier this year, a report called Muslim-American Terrorism Since 9/11: An Accounting by Professor Charles Kurzman of the U of North Carolina concluded:
 
Muslim-American terrorism makes news. Out of the thousands of acts of violence that occur in the United States each year, an efficient system of government prosecution and media coverage brings Muslim-American terrorism suspects to national attention, creating the impression …that Muslim-American terrorism is more prevalent than it really is.
 
The federal government has been insisting that methods it has put in place to “keep the nation safe” have been paying off – but the evidence suggests that it has been greatly exaggerating its success in disrupting terrorist plots and getting convictions for terrorism-related offenses. The most complete source of information on this subject is Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse or TRAC. 
 
Here is what the figures in the TRAC reports show: as the domestic spying apparatus grows ever larger and ever more intrusive, the number of prosecutions ending up in court declined during the first decade of the 21st century — in fact, the total number of prosecutions in 2008 was below what it had been before 9/11. Justice Department records indicate that from 2004 and 2008, the FBI and federal investigators recommended the prosecution of 8,896 individuals that were said to be connected to terrorism. But assistant US attorneys refused to bring any charges in nearly 6,000 of these cases. 
 
What does this mean? It means that there is simply insufficient evidence to bring the vast majority of cases to court, or there is a lack of evidence of criminal intent. Of the “terrorist cases” that do go to court, over a third do not involve any terrorist charges – but rather charges like lying to a federal official, immigration violations, document fraud, marriage fraud or the vague and much abused charge of conspiracy. 
 
So while the government trumpets its terrorism convictions, it appears it is arresting and imprisoning people who hardly match up to the “terrorist” image. A large percentage of “terrorist” prosecutions recommended by the FBI have nothing to do with terrorism and little supporting evidence. The substantial role played by informers in supplying ideas, funds and even weapons to plotters has been revealed in case after case that has come to court. 
 
I want to now turn to the methods the FBI has used in its dealings with the Muslim community, including the use of informers. As you may remember, immediately following 9/11 there was a round up of thousands of Middle Easterners and Muslim, not a single one of whom was ever charged in connection with 9/11 or any other terrorist plot. These “special interest” arrests and subsequent operations targeting mainly Muslims were undertaken to fill the information vacuum, and recruit informers. 
 
Changes to FBI guidelines made in May 2002 permitted the bureau to monitor lawful domestic religious, civic and political activity without suspicion of wrongdoing. On January 27, 2003, FBI field supervisors were ordered to count the number of mosques and Muslims in their areas, and use this information to establish a yardstick for the number of terrorism investigations they would carry out.
 
In December 2008, FBI guidelines were further revised to permit agents to use ethnicity and religion as a factor (as long as it was not the only one) in opening investigations, carrying out undercover interviews, and infiltrating groups. The new rules broadened the use of informants and enabled agents to conduct physical surveillance in connection with First Amendment protected religious and political activity.
 
When a redacted version of the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide that accompanied the new guidelines was finally made public, we discovered that it gave agents the power to collect, use, and map racial and ethnic data in order to assist the FBI’s “domain awareness” and “intelligence analysis.” Twenty-five ACLU affiliates immediately filed FOIA requests to get more information about the FBI’s ethnic mapping – in response to its request the ACLU of Maryland got back hundreds of totally blanked out pages. We here in Massachusetts have not heard back from the FBI and will probably go to court to demand the information. 
 
You may have read earlier this month that the FBI is revising the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide in order to yet again expand the powers given agents. They will now, for instance, be able to trawl through an individual’s trash to find material that can be used “to put pressure on that person to assist the government in the investigation of others,” as Charlie Savage wrote in the June 12th New York Times.
 
“Inform or be deported” – this is what the FBI has been telling many Muslims who are not citizens, according to an article in the July 11, 2006 Wall Street Journal. There have been instances of people having their green cards taken by the FBI and then told they would only get them back if they agreed to inform on fellow Muslims. If they refuse, they would be sent back to their countries of origin. Imams have been threatened with deportation for refusing to work for the FBI. Among them was Imam Foad Farahi, an asylum seeker who was offered residency and money to report on specific people in the Miami area. When he refused, he was given the choice of leaving the country voluntarily or being charged with terrorism. I think you will be hearing later on about the pressure on Tarek Mehanna to become an FBI informant.
 
A striking number of so-called terrorist plots appear to have been hatched by the FBI. In cases from New Jersey, Albany, Miami, Lodi, California and elsewhere, paid FBI informants have infiltrated groups, egged them on and often supplied them with plots and weapons. They have lured often clueless participants with promises of wealth and kept them on the “jihadist” path when their interest in the mission threatened to peter out. Informers have provided sometimes reluctant conspirators with the know how and (fake) bombs in tightly stage managed “plots” that capture the headlines and demonstrate the FBI is doing its job. 
 
Some examples – there were the ‘homegrown terrorists’ known as the Liberty City 7, who were not Muslim although they were initially presented as such. Living in an impoverished Miami neighborhood, this group of poor Haitian immigrants attended the Moorish Science Temple, which was infiltrated by an FBI informer known as ‘Brother Mohammed’. He promised their leader $50,000 in cash, firearms and other equipment if the group would agree to blow up federal buildings and the Sears Tower in Chicago. Even though the FBI itself dubbed the plot ‘aspirational rather than operational’, federal prosecutors pursued the men relentlessly. In 2009, four years after they were arrested, and after two trials ended in hung juries, the federal government convened a third trial and finally got a jury to agree to convict five of the seven men. 
 
A New York synagogue and Jewish Center and were the targets of a May 2009 ‘homegrown terrorist’ plot. It involved four destitute ex-cons in impoverished Newburgh, New York, one of whom suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and none of whom were practicing Muslims, although the extensive news coverage suggested otherwise. They were given cash, food, rent money, drugs, cell phones, a camera and disabled explosive devices including a Stinger missile by an FBI informant who had been convicted of identity fraud and was hoping for a reduced sentence and paid $100,000 for his efforts. The plot commanded huge media and political attention when it was “disrupted.”
 
Last month US District Court Judge Colleen McMahon described the FBI informant as a “serial liar” who pergured himself at trial and stated that the FBI had “created the crime here” – but nevertheless declined to throw out the jury verdict of guilty and order a new trial. Sentencing has been indefinitely delayed while a psychiatric evaluation is conducted. 
 
In perhaps the most bizarre case, Ahmad Niazi, a worshipper at a mosque in Irvine, California, reported to the FBI that someone at the mosque was making overtly jihadist statements. That someone turned out to be a paid FBI informant and convicted forger, Craig Monteilh, a.k.a Farouk al-Aziz, who later claimed to have spied for the FBI at several mosques around Southern California and been paid $177,000 tax free over a 15 month period. The mosque got a restraining order against him. 
 
The matter did not end there. The FBI asked Niazi to become an informant, and he refused – whereupon an FBI agent allegedly said he would make his life a “living hell.” Niazi was subsequently charged with perjury, fraud and making false statements. Monteilh meanwhile brought a $10 million lawsuit against his former bosses, alleging his work with the bureau had put his life in danger and when his cover was blown he was “cut loose” rather than being placed in protective custody. 
 
In February 2011, the ACLU brought a lawsuit against the FBI on behalf of Muslim plaintiffs, alleging that Monteilh was ordered by the FBI to carry out “indiscriminant surveillance” of Muslims in violation of their right to freedom of religion. The lawsuit claims that the FBI told Monteilh that “Islam was a threat to America’s national security.”
 
Among recent high profile cases involving informers and claims of entrapment was the November 2010 plot to bomb a crowded Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon. The alleged perpetrator, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali teenager who had been under federal surveillance for six months, was given a dud bomb by an undercover FBI agent. Two days after his arrest, there was an arson attack on a nearby Islamic Center.
 
In another case, the lawyer for 23-year-old Antonio Martinez claims his client would not “have had any ability whatsoever to carry out any kind of plan” without the assistance of an FBI informant. Martinez, a recent convert to Islam, was arrested in an early December 2010 sting operation as he was trying to detonate a fake bomb outside a Baltimore military recruitment center.
 
It is not always the FBI that is carrying out sting operations. In mid May Mayor Bloomberg and police commissioner Kelly held a high profile news conference at City Hall featuring live-action arrest photos where they announced the arrest of two Muslims who “wanted to kill Jews.” One of the men had reportedly been in a psychiatric hospital over 20 times, according to the June 16 New York Times. This time, it was undercover NYPD agents who befriended the men and provided them with handguns, ammunition and a dud hand grenade a few minutes before the sting was consummated. Interestingly, the FBI declined to get involved, federal prosecutors were apparently never consulted and a state grand jury later threw out the most serious charges against them. 
 
A report by New York University’s Center for Law and Security has found that undercover agents or informants were relied on in 62 percent of the 156 most significant anti-terrorism prosecutions since 9/11. 
 
Given the nation’s focus on Islam and terrorism, it is not surprising, that nearly a decade after 9/11, Muslims across the country – and here in the Greater Boston area – feel under siege. This is what we found out in extensive interviews we conducted over the past year. First-generation Muslims who came to the United States from police states feel especially vulnerable when FBI agents show up at their homes and places of work and ask them about personal aspects of their lives and about other community members. Some have told us that they know of people who have been threatened with deportation when they refused to become informers.
 
Many no longer feel comfortable in mosques which they suspect are being monitored. They don’t know who can be trusted. They find it difficult to fulfill their religious obligation of charitable giving because the government has used secret evidence to shut down the main Muslim charities. Furthermore, they frequently encounter harassment on the streets, discrimination at work, and are targeted for intrusive questions, humiliating searches and long delays at borders and airports.
 
Given the multiple entry points for feeding information about individuals and so-called “suspicious activity” into the databases of the surveillance system, there appears to be no straightforward way to clear names and get off watchlists. People who are innocent of any wrongdoing may spend their lives as “suspects.”
 
I want to close by quoting what we were told by one Muslim community organizer: 
The FBI is not earnestly looking for Muslims to be their partners. They are looking for criminals. They assume we are a criminal community, and we are forever burdened with proving that we are not. As long as you think Muslims are the problem, this would be some lousy partnership. Muslims have to be considered part of the solution.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.