Documents: FBI Spied on Bay Area Muslims

FBI visits were more business than friendly drop-ins.

The amplified voice rang out across the halls of the Mosque at the Muslim Community Association in Santa Clara. A call to prayer. The voice set-off the shuffle of shoeless men lining up in their socks for the 1:30 pm prayer.

For years, this growing Muslim community has increasingly opened its doors to the outside community, especially in a post 9/11 climate that found Muslim’s targeted for hate. In an effort to build trust and transparency, the center held open houses and tours where the public could visit. It even invited the F.B.I.

“We have outreach programs where we’ve invited the FBI and other law enforcement,” said Isa Shaw, a member of the Muslim Community Association. “We participated in their outreach efforts as well.”

But now it appears the friendly F.B.I. visits were more business than previously thought. Through FBI documents obtained by the ACLU and other groups under the Freedom of Information Act, it appears agents were keeping tabs on its hosts.

“What we’ve learned is they were documenting people’s first amendment protected activities,” said Shaw, “their religious practices, their associations.”

The documents, recorded between 2004 and 2008, show dozens of visits to Mosques and Islamic centers throughout the Bay Area. At the Seaside Mosque, agents documented conversations about community concerns about flight delays, information about a newly purchased property, and where and when women and men would meet in the building.

“Date fruits were being sold after the service to members of the Mosque,” wrote one agent after a visit to Seaside in August of 2005. “The FBI sampled the fruit. ”

“What’s happening as shown in these documents is the FBI’s using the guise of community outreach to get into mosques,” said the ACLU’s Julia Hirumi Mass. “And then recording totally benign information about people who are practicing their religion.”

In a statement, the FBI assistant director Michael Kortan said “The 2004-2008 San Francisco FBI documents reflect that information was collected within the scope of the an authorized law enforcement activity.” Kortan also noted, “Since that time, the FBI has formalized its community relations program to emphasize a greater distinction between outreach and operation activities.

To Shaw, however, the breach of trust came like a smack in the face.

“We feel we have been betrayed by the FBI,” he said. “We opened our doors, we invited them in. and they were secretly collecting this information for what purpose we don’t know.”

Mass said language in the files shows the documents were passed on to agencies outside the FBI, possibly opening up the subjects for further investigation.

“It’s a system of targeting a religious community for surveillance without any evidence of criminal activity,” Mass said. “This is a real front to religious freedom.”

Some in the Muslim community said the revelations would cause a chill, even as relations between Muslims and law enforcement had begun to thaw.

Shafath Syed, past president of San Jose’s South Bay Islamic Association, said the community has always been happy to work with law enforcement in a spirit of cooperation. He said he expected the new documents would now damage that trust. “I think people are going to be a bit more cautious with what they say to the FBI,” said Syed.

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