Taking “I Spy…” to a Whole New Level

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Twice in the past three months, representatives of Interfaith Alliance, myself included, and our coalition partners, including members of the Shoulder-to-Shoulder Campaign, have had the opportunity to meet with FBI personnel to get updates and provide recommendations on the process the FBI undertook. At the most recent meeting in February, we were surprised and honored when FBI Director Robert Mueller, himself, joined the meeting. We were truly pleased by his candor, and as Rev. Gaddy noted after the meeting, it was reassuring that Director Mueller “acknowledged the seriousness of our concerns and expressed commitment to maintaining regular contact with the interreligious community.”


The Bureau drew up a Guiding Principles document (recently made public), to which each of the 160,000 pages of training documents was held up in a review conducted by several subject matter experts. Roughly 700 documents and 300 presentations were deemed unusable, and hence pulled from the training curriculum. These materials were pulled if even one part a) included factual errors, b) was in poor taste, c) was stereotypical, or d) lacked precision. From everything we have been told, the process and intentionality behind this review were sound. However, it is unclear that all types of documents that should have been reviewed were actually reviewed, and we are still waiting for the training documents to be made public – even after being told this would be done within weeks of our meetings. For now, we choose to exercise cautious optimism while continuing to push the Bureau to make the documents public.


The FBI’s questionable intelligence-gathering issue is another area of concern. The documents obtained by Freedom of Information Act suits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California show that FBI agents visited mosques under the pretense of community outreach efforts – such as relationship building and hate crime prevention. However, upon leaving, the agents wrote up reports filed in a way that the information in them (including clergy members’ names and the content of their sermons as well as individual mosque members’ names and their religious international travel plans) was classified as “intelligence,” uploaded to central FBI databases and made accessible to other agencies. We continue to monitor the situation and call for a Department of Justice investigation because as Rev. Gaddy said in a recent statement, such practices are “a huge betrayal of the trust that all Americans – the Muslim community in particular – put in their government…unnecessarily – and potentially dangerously – [feeding] suspicion of American Muslims and [are] an affront to the freedom of religion and association paramount in our nation.”


On the local law enforcement side of things, as you have probably heard, the NYPD also has been in the national news of late for a few key reasons. First, there was its use of an inflammatory, biased and downright inappropriate training video called the Third Jihad, which says, among other things, that “few Muslim leaders…can be trusted,” and paints American Muslims as one big unified sleeper whose goal is to take over America.


Then, there were the (likely unconstitutional) surveillance programs conducted throughout the Northeast with no suspicion of wrongdoing. The AP’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting has found NYPD officers conducting a “human mapping program;” using informants called “mosque crawlers” to report back on the content of sermons and the population attending services at mosques; and tracking Muslim Student Associations at universities in Connecticut and New Jersey, all, again, with no evidence of wrongdoing. Lest you think this simply affects the American Muslim community (which would be bad enough), there are also reports of NYPD surveillance of businesses owned by Iranian-Americans – both Jewish and Muslim. And we know all too well that allowing one religious group to be broadly targeted for this kind of surveillance puts all our religious communities in danger.

Unfortunately, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who has been an outspoken defendant of the religious freedom rights of American Muslims in the past) and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo have chosen to side with the NYPD, instead of standing up to call this intelligence program what it is – religious profiling. With our national and local coalition partners, however, we are still pressing both Bloomberg and, more recently, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, to conduct an investigation into the NYPD’s intelligence-gathering program to see if any laws were broken and, almost more importantly, to determine whether potentially unconstitutional surveillance continues today. For more on the legal and policy issues at play, check out a great Q&A put together by the AP. As of this piece going to publication, we had not heard back from either office yet, but we hope to hear soon and will keep you posted as the situation develops.


To end on a positive note, just last week, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held a hearing entitled “Ending Racial Profiling in America,” which included significant discussion on the importance of ending religious profiling. Interfaith Alliance was proud to be part of a Gaddy noted in a “To profile individuals simply because they belong, or appear to belong, to a particular religious community turns First Amendment-protected beliefs and activities into cause for suspicion and is an affront to the freedom of religion, paramount in our nation … Today, Americans all over the U.S., representing a diversity of racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds, feel the negative impact of this practice. We must affirm our fundamental moral and democratic values of equal protection and religious liberty while making our nation safer by ending this practice now."