WASHINGTON — Heavily blacked-out internal FBI documents released Thursday indicate that the FBI, in some cases between 2007 and 2009, ran background checks on people they encountered at Muslim-related events and recorded personal information such as email addresses, phone numbers, physical descriptions and opinions in reports marked “routine.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, which obtained the documents under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, accused the FBI of misusing its community outreach programs to collect information on people at Muslim-related events that the FBI organized or was invited to attend. Those programs were intended to improve the relationship between Muslims and the FBI.
The bureau said some of the documents the ACLU published were not derived from outreach programs but were from actual criminal investigations in which it was appropriate to include specific details such as a driver’s license number.
The blacked-out parts make it difficult to understand what the reports represent. But the disclosure comes at a time when the FBI has been criticized for some of its other programs, straining the fragile relationship between law enforcement and Muslims who widely believe they are subjected to surveillance and scrutiny because of their religion.
The ACLU said the FBI never told Muslims at outreach events such as job fairs, religious dinners or community meetings that it would record in government files the details about the events or who attended them.
The FBI’s Community Outreach Program predates the terrorist attacks of September 2001 and is designed to improve the public’s trust in the bureau and build partnerships. After the attacks, federal, state and local government officials stepped up this type of outreach to Muslim communities. Agents who attend such official events are instructed to file reports for what the FBI described as “internal oversight purposes.”
Separate from outreach programs, FBI agents who are investigating a person or group may do their own outreach to as part of the investigation, said Jeff Mazanec, deputy assistant director of public affairs, who oversees the official program. But that is kept separate from what a community outreach coordinator does, he said.
For example, the ACLU cited a 2008 report describing an FBI agent in San Francisco attendance at a religious dinner. The agent documented who was sitting at a table, a cellphone number and details about a man the agent obtained from the California State Department of Motor Vehicles. The FBI agent also included details about a California man and a check deposited to a bank, referencing information from the FBI’s internal case files. The names of individuals and other details were censored from the publicly available report for privacy reasons.
Mazanec said the FBI report was written as part of a formal investigation and not as part of the official community outreach program.
A board member at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, Sara Mostafavi, said she was disappointed that the FBI’s San Francisco division filed a report in 2007 that listed the names and organizations of people at a mosque meeting. It included the names of 50 people from 27 different organizations and identified the particular sect of Islam that each of the attendees followed.
“When you enter kind of a relationship with a sense of trust, you’d like to know that your privacy rights aren’t going to get violated,” Mostafavi said. “It’s been difficult for some people to sometimes attend these meetings because they’re afraid of what the repercussions will be.”
Mazanec said the FBI includes such details in its files so that relationships can be maintained when agents leave or retire. “It’s better than a Rolodex,” Mazanec said. He said the FBI does not use outreach programs for terrorism investigations or assessments, and rules against this were sharpened this year.
Since 2001, advocacy and civil liberties groups have raised concerns that Muslim communities are unfairly targeted for counterterrorism purposes because of their religion. An Associated Press investigation into the New York Police Department’s intelligence-gathering tactics in Muslim communities revealed widespread spying programs that documented every aspect of Muslim life in New York. Police infiltrated mosques and student groups and secretly spied on Muslims who were considered partners in the city’s fight against terrorism.