The American Civil Liberties Union has released new records showing the FBI’s San Francisco division collected information on Muslim religious activities protected by the Constitution. The FBI is banned by law from keeping records on people’s religious practices unless there is a clear law enforcement purpose. But the ACLU said documents show the FBI violated that law by using so-called "community outreach" to procure and store information about religious beliefs, practices and otherwise innocent activities of Muslim community members. This is just the latest revelation in a long string of surveillance tactics used by the FBI and other agencies to monitor Muslims post-9/11. The ACLU is now calling on the inspector general to launch an investigation into the violation of the Privacy Act. We speak with Mike German, the ACLU’s national security policy counsel. From 1988 to 2004, he served as an FBI agent specializing in domestic counterterrorism. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We want to talk about FBI surveillance today. Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union released records showing the FBI’s San Francisco division collected information on Muslim religious activities protected by the Constitution. The FBI is banned by law from keeping records on people’s religious practices unless there’s a clear law enforcement purpose. But the ACLU said documents show the FBI violated that law by using so-called "community outreach" to procure and store information about religious beliefs, practices and otherwise innocent activities of Muslim community members.
AMY GOODMAN: This is just the latest revelation in a long string of surveillance tactics used by the FBI and other agencies to monitor Muslims post-9/11. The ACLU is now calling on the inspector general to launch an investigation into the violation of the Privacy Act.
We want to bring Mike German into this conversation, who is now with the ACLU. He is the national security policy counsel there. From 1988 to 2004, though, he served as an FBI agent specializing in domestic counterterrorism. We’re staying with Tim Weiner, author of Enemies: A History of the FBI.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Mike German, talk about what you’ve found, these documents you’ve gotten on San Francisco FBI’s so-called Muslim outreach.
MIKE GERMAN: Thank you very much for having me, Amy.
Back in November, we released an alert advising that the documents that we obtained from the FBI revealed that they were using community outreach programs as an intelligence-gathering tool under a program called "Domain Management" that was run through the intelligence directorate of the FBI. These latest documents that we released last week show that there was a separate program from that, also apparently part of the intelligence program, where the FBI used what they called "mosque outreach," where they would go to mosques—this was in northern California, we only have San Francisco records about this—and would tell the people that they were engaging with that this was part of their community outreach effort.
But what they were actually collecting was innocuous information and conversations about the way the mosque was operated, congregants’ travel plans, you know, interest in buying new property, the names of sermons. And they were collecting that information in FBI files, labeling it "positive intelligence," and according to the documents, the information was disseminated outside the FBI to other intelligence or law enforcement agencies. So this appeared to be a program where they were using the guise of community outreach to get people to engage with them, specifically directed at Muslim Americans, and then collecting information they’re not entitled to possess, putting it in intelligence files and disseminating it outside the FBI.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Tim Weiner, are you familiar with this program? And how do you think it compares to the kinds of surveillance that went on under Hoover?
TIM WEINER: The ACLU and the FBI represent the tug-of-war that goes on in this country between civil liberties and national security. This tug-of-war has been going on since the Constitution was written, but it was really joined in 1920, when the ACLU was formed. And Hoover went right after it, and he promised Roger Baldwin, one of its founders in 1924, "Everything’s fine, Roger. We’re not going to spy on you anymore," and he just kept right on spying on them.
Compared to the abuses of the past, this is not, you know, a huge smoking gun, but it is part of a pattern that has been going on for a century where the FBI oversteps its legal powers in spying on Americans. What’s good about what’s happening now—Mike may disagree—is that the ACLU and the FBI have been tugging at this, and the ACLU has been winning more than it’s losing, and the balance here between national security and civil liberties, which got so far out of whack under President George W. Bush, is, I think, nearing more of an equilibrium. And it’s because of the work of people like Mike German and some courageous journalists and outraged Americans who love their civil liberties and who want to be both safe and free, that this equilibrium is closer to a balance now than it was even a few years ago.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike German, do they really have to be antagonists—national security and freedom? Talk about Mueller today, the FBI director, and the laws that have been passed under President Obama that have increasingly allowed, perhaps legally, Americans to be spied on in this country.
MIKE GERMAN: I don’t think that civil liberties and security are antagonistic. I mean, in my experience working counterterrorism, any effort that I spent investigating somebody who wasn’t actually engaged in wrongdoing was a wasted effort, those were wasted resources, and that the way I became more effective was by focusing my investigations on people who I had a factual basis for believing were actually doing bad things, engaging in illegal acts or presenting a national security threat. So what I found is that the guidelines that were put in place after the Hoover abuses were discovered were actually very effective in compelling me, as an FBI agent, to focus on people who I had evidence to believe of wrongdoing, were engaged in wrongdoing.
And the problem since 9/11 has been that those guidelines have been significantly watered down, both immediately after 9/11—
TIM WEINER: If not obliterated, really.
MIKE GERMAN: If not obliterated, exactly. Immediately after 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcroft amended the guidelines. They were amended several times under the Bush administration, most devastatingly in December of 2008, just as the administration was walking out the door, which removed the requirement of any factual basis to believe somebody was engaged in wrongdoing to authorize the FBI to conduct really very intrusive investigations that have opened the door to some of the problematic programs that we’ve identified in our most recent Freedom of Information Act work, including a racial and ethnic mapping program where the FBI goes out and uses demographic information to identify communities based on race, based on these crass racial stereotypes about what groups are involved in different types of crime, and, you know, then identifying these communities for further investigation.
So, part of the problem is that we’re not attuned enough to the fact that protecting civil liberties actually makes the government more effective. And what we see instead is the FBI is targeting the usual suspects, and that’s immigrants, racial and religious minorities and political dissidents. And we’ve seen that continuously since 9/11. And the ACLU has used the Freedom of Information Act to uncover a lot of these abuses, but we haven’t seen a change in the laws to come back. We haven’t seen the Obama administration amend the Bush attorney general guidelines.
AMY GOODMAN: Tim Weiner, you have a much rosier view of FBI Director Mueller.
TIM WEINER: When the FBI goes down to Guantánamo in 2002, and they see what the CIA and the military are doing to prisoners in Guantánamo, they open up a file called "war crimes." When the FBI sees what’s happening in the CIA’s secret prisons and at Abu Ghraib, they report it up the chain of command. And this reaches the point where, in March of 2004, the FBI director, Bob Mueller, goes eyeball to eyeball with President Bush and says, "Mr. President, your secret electronic surveillance program is beyond the law and beyond your constitutional powers as commander-in-chief. And if you don’t scale it back, I’m going to resign. My letter of resignation is right here in my pocket. The attorney general is going to resign. His deputy is going to resign."
And Bush sees his political life passing before his eyes. He has visions of the Saturday Night Massacre dancing in his head. We know this because he put it in his memoir. The government would have fallen, because the headline the next day would have said, "FBI Director Resigns, Reasons Unstated, Secrecy Cited." What’s the next question? What the hell is the president of the United States doing to cause the FBI director to resign? And he pushes back, doesn’t he, Mueller, and he wins. At this point, the tug-of-war, which has gone so far in favor of national security that civil liberties is about to tip over, starts coming back.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mike German, very quickly, can you talk about the significance of the war crimes file that Tim Weiner has referred to?
MIKE GERMAN: Sure. I think that there were some FBI agents who did an admirable job trying to report detainee abuse that was happening, that they were witnessing. Unfortunately, the FBI did not give them any direction about whether they should participate in that activity, until after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. And the war crime file that some agents were collecting down in Guantánamo, they were actually ordered by FBI supervisors to destroy that file. So the FBI’s record in that issue, while there were certain agents that did a commendable job—in fact, three whistleblowers were retaliated against.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike German, Tim Weiner, I want to thank you both very much for being with us.