NEW YORK — The FBI has spied and compiled information on Muslim community groups under the cover of holding outreach meetings with their representatives, a US rights organization said Thursday.
The American Civil Liberties Union issued a report saying the Federal Bureau of Investigation had overstepped its authority and was violating the trust of groups that agreed to meet law enforcement officers. The report was based on government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
“The FBI has been illegally using its community outreach programs to secretly collect and store information about activities… for intelligence purposes,” the ACLU said.
According to Michael German, a former FBI agent who works with the ACLU, using such sessions to spy on people only backfired.
“The trust that community outreach efforts aim to create is undermined when the FBI exploits these programs to gather intelligence on the very members of the religious and community organizations agents are meeting with,” he said.
“The FBI should be honest with community organizations about what information is being collected during meetings and purge any improperly collected information.”
However, the FBI denied wrongdoing, saying information gathered by outreach teams was not used for operational matters.
“Established policy requires that an appropriate separation be maintained between outreach and operational activities and includes several provisions to ensure this is the case,” the FBI said in a statement.
The ACLU listed several examples of the alleged practice, including the compiling of notes on opinions, associations and contact details of participants at Ramadan dinners held in 2007 and 2008 during a San Francisco mosque outreach program.
In 2009, the ACLU said, the FBI in San Jose, California, detailed the opinions and backgrounds of three community leaders and members during a careers day for Assyrians, a Christian people from the Middle East.
And in 2007, the FBI in San Jose collected detailed information on the background of representatives from 27 Muslim organizations meeting at a mosque.
The ACLU already has filed a lawsuit in California alleging that the FBI paid an informant to spy on mosques in the state.
According to US media reports, the New York Police Department has also engaged in systematic intelligence gathering at city mosques, monitoring sermons and local residents.
In its statement, the FBI said the “primary purpose” of outreach programs was “to enhance public trust in the FBI in order to enlist the cooperation of the public to fight criminal activity.”