Today's FBI: Spying, Entrapment and Detention
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 Times called “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 Nation reported 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’s Paul 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.”
In June, 22 members of Congress sent a letter to the Justice Department urging an investigation into the ACLU's allegations. The letter reads, in part: “The evidence shows that the FBI recorded and disseminated information about community members’ First Amendment-protected activities, including religious practices. We request that you initiate an investigation into these allegations, including into possible Privacy Act violations within the FBI’s San Francisco and Sacramento divisions.”
But it’s not only California where FBI surveillance took place. In February, CNN reported on how the FBI had used Arvinder Singh, an Indian Sikh, to spy on Muslims living in Des Moines, Iowa. Singh was pressured by the FBI to work with them after he was charged with illegally selling Sudafed. Singh went into mosques posing as someone who wanted to convert to Islam. But he was really there for this reason: “The FBI gave him pictures of persons of interest and he would confirm that they were at the mosque.” Singh also taped some conversations with those worshipping in the mosque.
The FBI is not only in the business of spying on and entrapping Muslims in the US. The agency also plays a role in the detention of Muslims on trumped-up terrorism charges.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the FBI conducted indiscriminate roundups of mostly Muslim men in the United States. About 1,200 people were arrested. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the government “refused to release their names or their place of detention” and the detainees “were barred from contacting their lawyers.” Furthermore, the institute states, “many detainees taken into custody in connection with investigations subsequent to the attacks were arrested without warrant, held without charge for long periods, detained despite an immigration judge's decision to release them on bond, and detained even after a final determination of their cases.” Many of the people arrested after 9/11 were deported back to their countries of origin.
The FBI has extended its legally questionable detentions of Muslim men to overseas allies of the United States as well. One particularly egregious case was reported by Mother Jones earlier this year. As the publication detailed, Yonas Fikre is a Muslim-American man from Portland, Oregon. After he visited family in Sudan in 2010, the FBI contacted him and pressured him to become an informant. Fikre refused, and FBI officials told him that he was on a no-fly list and could not come back to the US unless he cooperated.
Fikre eventually made his way to the United Arab Emirates, but it was there that his travels became a nightmare. Fikre was detained by UAE security forces and then tortured. The UAE is a close ally of the United States. Mother Jones’ Nick Baumann wrote that the “bureau has for years used its elite cadre of international agents (known as legal attachÃ©s, or legats) to coordinate the overseas detention and interrogation by foreign security services of American terrorism suspects.”
Fikre says he was held in “stress positions” and that he was beaten on the soles of his feet. Fikre’s lawyer told Mother Jones that “there was explicit cooperation” between the UAE and the FBI, though the FBI wouldn’t confirm that fact. “When Yonas [first] asked whether the FBI was behind his detention, he was beaten for asking the question. Toward the end, the interrogator indicated that indeed the FBI had been involved. Yonas understood this as indicating that the FBI continued to [want] him to work for/with them,” the lawyer said.
Fikre is currently living in Sweden, afraid to return to the US, and has been charged by the Justice Department with conspiring to hide money transfers.
The tactics used against Muslims are only the latest chapter in the FBI's sordid history of spying on and harassing Americans. Officials may want to distance themselves from the controversial NYPD surveillance program, but as the cases of Yonas Fikre, the Newburgh Four and others show, the FBI has continued to violate the rights of Muslims in the U.S. and abroad. So before sniping at the NYPD, perhaps these FBI officials should speak up about their own house, and get it in order.