[Julia A. Shearson is executive director of Council on American Islamic Relations - Cleveland (CAIR).]
On March 17, 2009, the American Muslim Task Force (AMT) announced that it was considering suspending outreach ties with the FBI. The announcement came after continued civil rights abuses perpetrated by the bureau, abuses that have gone largely unchecked by Congress and the courts, and unnoticed by the American public.
After more than eight years of dialogue between the American Muslim community and the FBI, that agency continues to employ pressure tactics against the Muslim community. The dialogue has frequently been one-sided, with the Muslim community airing serious legitimate grievances that seem to fall on deaf ears.
Those inside the FBI who believe that certain policies toward the Muslim community are counterproductive apparently do not hold sway. Thus, expediency has won out over sound policy, and the advice of Muslim leaders about how to combat extremism without alienating the community remains unheeded.
The fishing expeditions, border detentions, visa revocations, infiltrations, provocations, and arrests continue, as do the abuses involving the watch-lists, the national security letters, and the immigration system. Outspoken Muslim leaders and groups continue to be demonized and marginalized.
When it became clear in February that the FBI was sending agents provocateurs like the ex-convict Craig Monteilh into Muslim houses of worship, the AMT was forced to consider the suspension of outreach ties. The possible suspension would in no way affect the duty to report crimes or threats of violence to our nation’s law enforcement agencies.
To continue business as usual would be unwise, particularly for organizations and individuals whose civil rights mission must trump their desire for good public relations.
The AMT statement has caught the attention of those in Congress who hold civil rights dear, such as Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) who read from the AMT’s list of alleged FBI abuses while questioning FBI Director Robert Mueller before the Judiciary Committee on March 25. Senator Feingold wanted to know whether the new attorney general guidelines were “helping or hurting the FBI’s relationship with the U.S. Muslim community.”
“My expectation is that our relationships are as good now as before the guidelines generally across the country,” said Mueller. In reality, there has been a clamor against the guidelines from Arab-American, American Muslim and civil liberties groups from the outset.
The guidelines represent a radical policy shift. They give the FBI authority to use intrusive investigative techniques to collect information in the absence of particularized evidence of a crime or risk to national security. They allow religion and ethnicity to be taken into consideration in opening an investigation. They also diminish the ability of Congress and the Department of Justice to oversee FBI investigative operations by delaying or eliminating altogether certain reporting requirements between the field offices and headquarters for some types of investigations.
Tellingly, when Sen. Feingold asked Director Mueller about the numbers of “threat assessments” being conducted, the director could not say. Under the new guidelines, threat assessments are not reported to headquarters, making oversight even more difficult.
In pushing the guidelines through in the last days of the Bush administration, Attorney General Mukasey left the new attorney general, Eric Holder, in a quandary. There is significant pressure for Holder to revisit the guidelines, but he will likely find the task difficult. The guidelines are a milestone in the FBI’s efforts to reconstitute itself as the United States’ premier domestic intelligence agency.
In reality, the unveiling of the guidelines was likely no more than a public debut of what had already been going on in the bureau since 9/11.
Take for example the successful young engineer in Ohio who was recently stripped of his visa by the State Department and then given a chance to redeem it by becoming an informant for the FBI. When he politely demurred, he and his young wife were sent packing by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) back to the Middle East. Essentially, the crushing power of three US agencies were brought to bear in abridging his due process rights.
Sen. Feingold was right to ask about the relationship between the FBI and the American Muslim community. To get a clearer picture, he should hold in-depth hearings and gather testimony from Muslims affected by FBI tactics.
And before making a decision on the new guidelines, the attorney general and the inspector general of the Department of Justice should meet with a wide range of Muslim groups and individuals to hear their perspective.