Wed. Dec 1st, 2021

The United States Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that will determine whether the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) can invoke a “state secret” privilege to file a lawsuit over its monitoring of Muslim communities and places of worship in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Plaintiffs in the case, which stemmed from a lawsuit originally filed in 2011, say the U.S. government has used national security for years to evade liability. It deprived them of the opportunity to present a mountain of evidence in court that they say shows the FBI was conducting a “dragnet” surveillance campaign against the Muslim community in Southern California that included secret audio and video recordings. has and was exclusively motivated by the religion of those monitored.

That oversight came amid a multitude of U.S. governments in the early 2000s. tactics targeting Muslims in the name of national security still casting a long shadow, even as they remain shrouded in secrecy.

“We have been feeling violated for the past 15 years, at least since the time I found out what the FBI was doing,” said Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, an imam at the Orange County Islamic Foundation in Mission Viejo, California. , when the agency paid informant pretended to be a convert to monitor his mosque and others in the area from 2006.

The religious leader is a plaintiff in the case, Fazaga v FBI, along with Ali Uddin Malik and Yasser Abdelrahim, both congregation members at the Irvine Islamic Center in Irvine, California.

A lower court in 2012 rejected the trio’s initial lawsuit and ruled in favor of the FBI’s position, arguing in part that it would pose a national security risk to allow it to continue. A federal appeals court later sided with Fazaga, Malik and Abdelrahim, saying the lawsuit should continue. to advance the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Sorry, but you just have to trust us”

For a decade spanning three presidential administrations, the government’s line of defense against the lawsuit has remained the same, said Ahilan Arulanantham, the faculty co – director of the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at UCLA, who will argue on behalf of Fazaga, Malik. and Abdelrahim on Monday at the Supreme Court.

“The government’s position was: ‘We do not (monitor) people just because of their religion,'” he said. “Anything else we tell you at all will endanger national security and can therefore not be shared with anyone, not even in court in secret.

“The government’s position comes down to, ‘Sorry, but you just have to trust us,'” he said.

The FBI has been protected to date to provide a full account of its surveillance activities in Southern California, but confirmed in unrelated court proceedings that Craig Monteilh worked as an informant for the agency at several mosques in Orange County in 2006 and 2007. has. .

The agency maintained, according to court documents, that “it was not involved in unconstitutional and illegal practices” and that it “undertook fairly measured investigative actions in response to credible evidence of potential terrorist activity”.

Other details come from stories of congregation members and community members who came in contact with Monteilh, as well as Monteilh’s own long accounts of his work as an informant.

The 2011 lawsuit alleges that Monteilh, at the behest of his FBI agents, recorded hours of video and audio inside mosques, at religious gatherings, inside people’s homes, and threw out a wide and often indiscriminate net by various groups at the to infiltrate various Islamic institutions.

The infiltration was particularly provocative for Fazaga, who as a prominent leader had moderated a community meeting just months earlier with the head of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, Stephen Tidwell. The official assured the meetings that the agency would not send secret monitors into the community.

“The potential for abuse is just as incredible,” Fazaga said of the FBI’s broad national security claims.

“Imagine putting recording devices in the confessional in a Catholic church? “Imagine being able to do this in a place that is meant to be safe … people trust their religious leaders, people come and share their most intimate details with us,” he told Al Jazeera.

“For the government to have access to this type of environment without good reason,” he added, “it is very dangerous and very harmful.”

The 2011 lawsuit points out that no convictions came from Monteilh’s monitoring.

However, several members of the congregation took it upon themselves to report Monteilh – and his persistent fixation on violence – to the authorities.

As more details about the FBI’s surveillance came to light, especially when Monteilh was released in 2009, mistrust of law enforcement and within the Muslim community in Orange County became pervasive, Fazaga said.

Without government accountability, that environment remains largely unchanged, he said.

“The most important element in any healthy human relationship is trust. And when you erode that trust, you literally can not have a healthy community, ”he said.

“People are beginning to doubt. They start to suspect and then they start distancing themselves. ”

He added that non-Muslim converts have experienced particular caution in the years since.

“Historically, it has always been a moment that the Muslim community celebrates,” he said. “Now… I will lie if I tell you people do not ask: Is it real? is it for the show? Is this the next informant in our community? ”

‘Symbolic and doctrinal’

Attorney Arulanantham said the Supreme Court proceedings could have both “symbolic and doctrinal” impacts.

“There has been very little accountability for the long history of discrimination against Muslim Americans since 9/11, and this case offers them the rare opportunity to do so,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Doctrinal,” he added, “for the courts to say that there is a mechanism by which the government can be held accountable when it comes to discrimination on the grounds of religion, even in national security contexts, will be very important. ”

Monday’s arguments will focus on the government’s state secret privileges, a doctrine dating back to the early 1800s that was refined in subsequent court rulings to regulate when national security could be cited to withhold information.

The arguments are also likely to focus on the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which regulates domestic surveillance. The law was passed in the wake of revelations of the government’s oversight of civil rights leaders and anti-war protesters.

Surveillance of Muslim communities in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks continues to cast a long shadow in the US [File: Matt Rourke/The Associated Press]

Fazaga, who is now an imam at the Memphis Islamic Center in Mississippi, said a ruling in favor of the FBI’s national security claims would confirm the belief that Muslims in the US are second-class citizens.

He said he is still regularly approached by other Muslims from across the country who share their own experiences with the FBI’s surveillance practices in the two decades since 9/11.

Yet he agreed that the matter goes much further than one faith group and encouraged the wider American population to pay attention.

“Muslim communities immediately took up the burden of this,” he said.

“But in the end, the good that comes out of it is not just for the Muslim community. It’s for all citizens. “

Fazaga, Malik and Abdelrahim are also represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the law firm of Hadsell Stormer Renick and Dai.

A decision in the case is expected shortly before the end of the current Supreme Court term, which ends in June 2022.

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