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Today's FBI: Spying, Entrapment and Detention

FBI officials have criticized the NYPD's spying apparatus, but their own agency routinely violates the rights of Muslims.

A protest against abusive law enforcement tactics targeting Muslims.
Photo Credit: CAIR NY


Soon after the Associated Press began publishing its  expose of the New York Police Department’s widespread surveillance of Muslims, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began to speak up.

Officials like Michael Ward, the top FBI official in New Jersey, criticized the NYPD’s warrantless spying on innocent Muslims for creating “risks” -- the risk of Muslims pulling “back cooperation” with law enforcement.

The latest example of the FBI voicing criticism of the NYPD comes in Ronald Kessler’s book,The Secrets of the FBI. An updated version of the book that was recently released quotes FBI officials saying that the NYPD’s surveillance program is a “waste of money” and unconstitutional.

These FBI officials are right. But before criticizing another law enforcement agency, they should look in the mirror.

“These sorts of comments may be more the result of turf wars than different law enforcement practices between the FBI and the NYPD,” said Diala Shamas, a legal fellow at City University of New York's CLEAR (Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility) project. CLEAR works to address the legal needs of Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities in New York. “Based on our clients' experiences, the FBI has very similar policies,” she told AlterNet.

Shamas also noted that the policies both the FBI and NYPD pursue have the effect of “chilling...aspects of healthy community life in Muslim communities.”

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the FBI has engaged in many of the same practices the NYPD has been criticized for: warrantless spying, entrapment and the detention of Muslims in the US.

The FBI’s record on these issues is just as bad, if not worse, than the NYPD’s. And both law enforcement agencies’ record contributes to what Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Timescalled “a separate justice system for Muslims,” where “the principle of due process is twisted and selectively applied.” Here is an examination of the ways the FBI has systematically violated the constitutional rights of Muslims living in the United States.


The FBI has been harshly criticized by civil rights groups and advocates for Muslims for its strategy of targeting young, troubled Muslim men in its zeal for preventing the next terrorist attack. Critics say that the FBI is entrapping Muslims by, in effect, creating its own terrorist plots, supplying the money and weapons to carry out those plots and then arresting the very same men it supplied.

As the  Nationreported in July, “there have been 138 terrorism or national security prosecutions involving informants since 2001,” according to the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. These informants are usually the ones who cross “the line from merely observing potential criminal behavior to encouraging and assisting people to participate in plots that are largely scripted by the FBI itself.”

The case of the so-called Newburgh Four is a perfect illustration of this strategy. In 2009, four black Muslim converts were arrested in the economically depressed city of Newburgh, 60 miles north of Manhattan. The arrests made headlines across the country, as the four men were accused of attempting to blow up synagogues in Riverdale, New York and of wanting to fire a Stinger missile at military aircraft.

But the entire plot was the work of an FBI informant, Shahed Husain, who promised the men money and cars in exchange for carrying out the plot. The men who were targeted in this scheme were poor people struggling with drug abuse. One of the men “had mental issues so severe his apartment contained bottles of his own urine. He also believed Florida was a foreign country,” as the Guardian’sPaul Harris wrote in a detailed report on the case. One of the men arrested was James Cromitie, who was offered a staggering $250,000 for carrying out the plot. At one point, Cromitie clearly wanted to back out of the plan and ignored Husain’s entreaties. But when he lost his job and was in desperate straits, the offer of a quarter-million dollars could not be turned down.

Karen Greenberg, the director of Fordham’s center on national security, told the Guardian: “There has been no case as egregious as this. It is unique in the incentive the government provided. A quarter million dollars?"

A report on entrapment by New York University’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice examined the Newburgh Four case and two other cases and concluded that, “The government’s informants introduced and aggressively pushed ideas about violent jihad and, moreover, actually encouraged the defendants to believe it was their duty to take action against the United States."


Just as the NYPD sends informants into mosques to sleuth for non-existent terror plots, the FBI has likewise spied on mosques and collected information on them. The FBI’s operations in California exemplify this.

In March, the American Civil Liberties Union released a set of documents  showing how a “mosque outreach” program in California turned into an FBI surveillance program. Documents show that from 2004-2008 the FBI “compiled intelligence on American Muslim religious organizations and their leaders’ and congregants’ constitutionally protected beliefs and activities, without any suspicion of wrongdoing.”

Here’s how it worked: the FBI would reach out to mosques and Muslim leaders over issues like hate crimes. FBI agents then wrote up reports about their meetings--but also included information about political beliefs, religious practices and the location of mosques. This data was then marked as “positive intelligence,” meaning that it could be disseminated to other government agencies. The ACLU charges that the dissemination of this information to other agencies increases “the likelihood that other law enforcement...would investigate innocent groups or individuals based solely on their religion.”

The exposure of the FBI’s “mosque outreach” program came a year after the ACLU published documents showing how a “community outreach” program similarly collected and stored information about American Muslims. For example, in 2008 FBI agents in San Francisco attended iftars, the meal that breaks the daily fast for Muslims during Ramadan. These agents then “collected and documented individuals’ contact information and First Amendment-protected opinions and associations.”

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