By Josh Israel Newly released FBI documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, suggest that the bureau illegally spied on the religious practices of Muslim Americans, under the guise of community outreach. An FBI spokesman defended the information gathering as “within the scope of an authorized law enforcement activity, whether investigation or liaison, including activities designed to strengthen relationships in various communities.” The ACLU explains:
The FBI’s targeting of American Muslim religious organizations for secret intelligence gathering raises grave constitutional concerns because it is an affront to religious liberty and equal protection of the law. The bureau’s use of outreach meetings to gather intelligence also undermines the trust and mutual understanding necessary to effective law enforcement. Additionally, the FBI’s retention of information gathered through “mosque outreach” in its intelligence files violates federal Privacy Act prohibitions against the maintenance of records about individuals’ First Amendment-protected activity.
But this would hardly be the first time the FBI spied on peaceful Americans. Here are just a few recent examples:
- Iraq War Opponents — A 2002 FBI memo showed the bureau investigated gatherings of the Thomas Merton Center for Peace & Justice, as the pacifist group leafleted against the Iraq War.
- Environmentalists — The FBI improperly investigated two planned Greenpeace corporate protests, a three-year inquiry extending long after the protests were over.
- Animal Rights Supporters — The bureau also improperly investigated People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.This intelligence, while not useful for public safety, was at least better than the virtual restaurant reviews gathered by the New York Police Department’s spying operation.A 2010 Inspector General’s report lambasted the FBI for equating nonviolent protests with terrorism and for “false and misleading statements to the public and to Congress.”Of course, these groups are in good company. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself was spied on regularly by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The COINTELPRO investigations into whether the civil rights leader might be a Communist including tapped phone conversations, bugs at his house, and even a 1964 infamous poison-pen letter warning him he would be exposed as a fraud. But nearly 50 years later, it seems perhaps the FBI should have learned from its mistakes.