Muslims and ACLU sue FBI over mosque surveillance

February 23, 2011

(RNS) Is sending a secret informant into a mosque in search of
terrorists proactive policing, or a violation of worshippers' civil
rights?


That's the question a federal judge will have to answer after the
American Civil Liberties Union and the Council of American-Islamic
Relations filed a lawsuit Tuesday (Feb. 22) in Los Angeles against the
FBI.


The suit charges the nation's top law enforcement agency targeted
Muslims for surveillance based solely on their religious affiliation,
violating their constitutional rights.


FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller declined to comment on the lawsuit.
In a statement, the agency rejected allegations of religious profiling.


"The FBI investigates allegations of crimes, not constitutionally
protected activities, including the exercise of religious freedom," the
statement said. "The FBI does not investigate houses of worship or
religious groups, but individuals who are alleged to be a threat to
national security or involved in criminal activity."


Filed on behalf of three plaintiffs, the lawsuit says the FBI's Los
Angeles office paid Craig Monteilh, an Irvine, Calif. resident who had
been imprisoned for forgery, to "indiscriminately collect" phone
numbers, e-mail addresses and other personal information on hundreds or
even thousands of Muslims in Southern California.


Using the alias Farouk al-Aziz, Monteilh worked undercover for 14
months between 2006-2007, the lawsuit alleges, and was paid between
$6,000 and $11,200 per month. He did most of his surveillance at the
Islamic Center of Irvine but targeted other Southern California mosques
as well, according to the suit. The suit also said Monteilh taped
conversations he had with Muslims in their homes and videotaped mosques.


Information collected by Monteilh helped the FBI start a case
against one Irvine mosque member, but that case collapsed. Monteilh went
public with his informant status in 2009, and filed his own lawsuit
against the FBI last year alleging civil rights violations.


"Ironically, the operation ended when members of the Muslim
communities of Southern California reported the informant to the police
because of his violent rhetoric and ultimately obtained a restraining
order against him," said the lawsuit.


Muslim Americans and even some law enforcement officials contend
such clandestine surveillance can lead to abuses by informants, and
alienate Muslim communities.