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  • Post-9/11 surveillance has left a generation of Muslim Americans in a shadow of distrust and fear

    Mohamed Bahe tries not to remember the overwhelming pain he felt the night he learned a volunteer with his organization, Muslims Giving Back, was a paid informant for the New York City Police Department.

    In 2011, Bahe, a Muslim American whose family came to the U.S. from Algeria, had spent months kickstarting his community volunteer group, focused on feeding the homeless and delivering food to families in need. The group worked with different mosques near where he lived in Queens, and its members were becoming familiar faces in a community that had grown wary of outsiders. The heightened scrutiny of law enforcement on Muslim communities had mosque-goers skeptical of people they had not seen before. Mosques, once the center of social life in a community, had become a quiet place where people felt like a stranger could be an informant or an undercover police officer.

    Bahe’s work came crashing down when a volunteer who had become a familiar face confessed on Facebook to be a paid informant of the NYPD, tasked with spying on other Muslims. Bahe’s group had been watched for over a year, the volunteer said. The community then stopped working with Bahe’s group.

    “A lot of our members were completely traumatized and disappeared, they were not even returning our phone calls because they were so scared, and I think it destroyed their morale, it destroyed everything they ever believed in, because that was one of our hopes — to give a positive image of our religion,” Bahe said. “I was angry, I felt betrayed, I felt loss, not only was I being spied on, but my own community kicked us out. No one trusted us anymore,” he added.

    The federal government invested nearly $8 trillion in the wars that followed 9/11, according to an analysis by the Costs of War project at Brown University released this month. About $1.1 billion of that has been spent on preventing terrorism at home. Counterrorism efforts in the U.S. have taken various forms since then: new government agencies, surveillance programs and the loosening of longstanding law enforcement guidelines that made it easier to carry out intelligence investigations on citizens without the same level of evidence, often resulting in the profiling of Muslim Americans on the basis of religion or country of national origin in violation of protections provided by the constitution.

    Though it’s hard to quantify how many Muslim Americans have been affected, since such government programs are often secret or classified, being surveiledhas left a generation of Muslim Americans struggling with feelings of distrust and fear.

    “It left such a disgusting taste in our mouth, that this country is never going to accept you,” Bahe said of how his community reacted to the realization they’d been surveilled.

    What counterterrorism looked like at home

    National security programs and their reach went through significant changes in the period that followed 9/11. The Patriot Act, passed 45 days after 9/11, was one of the first steps in drastically changing U.S. surveillance, making it easier for the federal government to monitor citizens in the name of searching for domestic threats. It expanded law enforcement’s ability to access people’s phone records, bank records and other personal information in the name of counterterrorism and national security. Simultaneously, then-President George W. Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans’ international phone calls without court-approved warrants.

    At the same time, the FBI loosened guidelines around how law enforcement can conduct intelligence-gathering investigations, changes outlined in a report from The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit law and public policy institute affiliated with the NYU School of Law. The rules known as the Levi Guidelines, implemented in the 1970s, limited the information law enforcement could gather about people and established different tiers of investigations: preliminary, limited and full investigations. Full investigations could only be conducted on the basis of clear and articulable facts that indicated a person or group were a threat to national security. This helped prevent the agency from going on fishing expeditions into protest movements or minority communities. The guidelines were built on the idea that “government monitoring of individuals or groups because they hold unpopular or controversial political views is intolerable” and dramatically reduced the number of domestic security investigations, the Brennan Center report noted.

    This changed when new guidelines were set in place by the U.S. Attorney General in 2002 and again in 2008. While the 2002 guidelines allowed the FBI broad discretion in checking out leads that they deem to be threatening, they stopped at providing the tools of a full-blown investigation. The 2008 guidelines broadened the FBI’s intelligence-gathering even further, allowing agents to look into the lives of Americans without any “factual predicate” to start an investigation, meaning there no longer has to be any evidence of suspicion, just an “authorized purpose”

    “…the authroized purpose could be ‘well, I want to prevent terrorism, so I’m going to go spy on this Muslim community in Dearborn, Michigan,’ for example,” said Faiza Patel, a national security expert with the Brennan Center.

    Thirteen years after they were created, these guidelines remain in place allowing surveillance and monitoring, including of the American Muslim community, to continue.

    An FBI spokesperson says the agency conducts all its operations in accordance with legal requirements, including the Constitution.

    “Post-9/11 the FBI’s resources to combat counterterrorism were significantly enhanced in order to protect the U.S. and U.S. security interests abroad,” the FBI said in a statement. “We use all available and lawful tools, resources and techniques to support ongoing investigations that are predicated on criminal activity.”

    The FBI did not respond to additional requests for comment about the Levi Guidelines.

    Tied to the work of law enforcement was The Department of Homeland Security, a new agency created in 2002 as a direct response to 9/11. In its creation, DHS’ aim was to work closely with police and the FBI to create and implement programs that would prevent the information-sharing failures that led to Sept. 11. These programs included the Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative, Countering Violent Extremism and Fusion Centers– information-gathering and sharing centers that exchange intelligence between federal, state and local agencies. All these programs are dedicated to collecting information about U.S. citizens that might shed light on any suspicious activity or potentially reveal domestic terrorist plots. Some programs, like the Targeted Violence & Terrorism Prevention (TVTP) Grant Program, made grants available for local communities to take their own initiatives to monitor and prevent threats.

    The Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative in California recently received more than $800,000 in TVTP grant money from DHS. The organization works on preventing targeted violence in schools and houses of worship.

    Hammad Alam, staff attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice- Asian Law Caucus, has been following various grant programs aimed at preventing violent extremism efforts in California and takes issue with those targeting schools and places of worship. He notes that through these grants, they’ve implemented “violence prevention” workshops across Bay Area schools, creating threat assessment teams of counselors and teachers to identify behaviors in students that could lead to violent extremism.

    “We know from the impact of these programs that Muslim students and Black students are going to be the primary targets of these programs,” Alam said.

    Fusion Centers in particular were also touted as a centerpiece of domestic counterrorism efforts by various DHS officials, including former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano. These centers are a combination of state, local, federal and sometimes private agencies that come together to amalgamate and analyze information; there are currently 80 active designated centers across the country.

    While the centers were designed to make information-sharing easier, in practice, they have struggled with a number of issues.

    A 2012 Senate oversight committee report on Fusion Centers said they “forwarded ‘intelligence’ of uneven quality – oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections … and more often than not, unrelated to terrorism.’”

    “Instead of strengthening our counterterrorism efforts, they have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties,” said former Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, then a subcommittee ranking member leading the investigation into the centers.

    Attempts to gather and report intelligence at everyday events like a marriage counciling seminar put on by a Muslim organization, or at a lecture on parenting delivered by a Muslim American speaker, were deemed violations of constitutionally protected activities by the Office of General Counsel at DHS.

    It was also hard to track exactly how much money went toward these centers. DHS was unable to provide the congressional committee with a firm dollar figure for how much federal money was allocated to states and cities to support their Fusion Centers. Estimates from 2003 to 2011 ranged from $289 million to $1.4 billion.

    A senior DHS official says that Fusion Centers were never created strictly for counterterrorism purposes — they were made to track all crimes and all hazards, sharing information on a variety of issues from gang violence to organized crime.

    The official told the PBS NewsHour that the underlying premise in their efforts to prevent terrorist attacks by individuals who are in the United States was to understand threats and identify the behavioral indicators associated with someone who may be preparing to commit an act of violence.

    “Standing in front of an apartment building isn’t illegal, but standing in front of an apartment building engaging in activities that are consistent with somebody who’s selling drugs could potentially be illegal,” the DHS senior official said.

    But as reports on various surveillance programs have indicated, these efforts often took on biases that affected Muslim Americans.

    “We lacked a lot of information and so … there were programs that were created that tended to be more racially, religious or ethnically based,” the official said of the early programs post-9/11.

    But the official also said that “huge amounts of progress” have been made in the information gathering and sharing mechanisms done via fusion centers and they now have a better understanding of behaviors that might be threatening, resulting in a move away from profiling based on “ethnic or religious strategies of the past.”

    Community impact

    Bahe’s experience of being surveilled by someone he trusted was not uncommon in the years that followed 9/11. Many law enforcement agencies launched their own surveillance programs focused predominantly on the Muslim community, embeddeding themselves into mosques, community centers and religious student groups, asking probing questions about people’s thoughts on “Al Qaeda” or “jihad.”

    “It was so invasive it covered everyday life … undercover informants or undercover officers, their job was to live the life of a fake Muslim inside these communities,” said Ahmed Mohamed, of the New York chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-NY).

    An NYPD surveillance program enacted in New York City has been the subject of several lawsuits for its targeting of Muslims at community centers, mosques and gathering places in the greater New York area. One lawsuit highlighted the actions of an undercover officer who went on a college rafting trip to monitor students, and recorded how often students on the trip prayed.

    Michael Bloomberg, who took office as mayor of New York months after the attacks has since said the controversial surveillance program was part of an effort to keep the United States safe. In an interview with PBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff, Bloomberg in Feb. 2020 said that surveilling the American Muslim community was “a natural place to go.”

    “All of the people came from the same place and all that came were from a place they happened to be one religion. And if they’d been another religion, we would’ve done the same thing,” Bloomberg said.

    “It does not, incidentally, mean that all Muslims are terrorists or all terrorists are Muslim. But, the people that flew those airplanes came from the Middle East and some of the imams were urging more of the same,” Bloomberg said, pointing to claims that “there were imams who publicly at that time were urging the terrorism.”

    After the NYPD settled the case in 2018, then New York City Police Commissioner

    James P. O’Neill stressed that the settlement did not mean the NYPD were admitting to any violation of law or misconduct in their surveillance efforts.

    “The resolution of this case affirms and enhances the NYPD’s commitment to conducting effective investigations to prevent crime and terrorism,” O’Neill said.

    “Think about what you do in your daily life and someone undercover doing it with you … it’s very hard, not only did it create a lot of distrust between the community and law enforcement, but also among the community itself, you’re not crazy or unreasonable to think ‘I don’t know that person– I wonder if he’s undercover or an informant,” Mohamed said.

    Three Muslim American men from Orange County, California, are suing the FBI over surveillance conducted in 2006 and 2007 by one of their informants. The informant, Craig Monteilh, recently condemned his undercover work in an interview with The Guardian. Monteilh said he was tasked with integrating himself in Orange County’s Muslim community, pretending to convert to Islam and making questionable statements to community members — so much so they felt uncomfortable and reported Monteilh to authorities.

    “The way the FBI conducts their operations, It is all about entrapment … I know the game, I know the dynamics of it. It’s such a joke, a real joke. There is no real hunt. It’s fixed,” he told The Guardian.

    The men’s head lawyer, Ahilan Arulanantham, told the PBS NewsHour that the community felt “a deep betrayal.” The FBI is claiming that because the work of the informants was secret, this litigation challenging it can’t go forward. The Supreme Court is expected to deliberate on that claim in November.

    Keeping such information secret “means we don’t get any government accountability and whether they actually discriminate against people on the basis of their religion,” Arulanantham argued.

    Intelligence officials say that their efforts through surveillance programs over the past 20 years has helped gain a better understanding of behaviors that might lead to security threats and has bridged gaps in sharing intel.

    “We have made huge amounts of progress, improving our ability to gather information that allows us to understand the threat, huge amounts of progress in understanding at a very detailed level behavior indicators associated with different types of threats, we’ve improved our ability to share that information across the different levels of government including the private sector, and as a result, we have moved away in a totality from any of those ethnic or religious strategies of the past,” the DHS official said.

    But some experts say it’s hard to determine the effectiveness of these programs beyond that.

    “We don’t really know how effective these surveillance programs have been, because details on the scale of the programs and scope of their involvement in particular cases remains classified,” said Charles Kurzman, professor of sociology and co-director of the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

    “The programs were successful in that there has been no second wave of attacks on the scale of 9/11 – but it is not clear whether more attacks on that scale were ever planned. None of the arrests and disrupted plots in the United States have been on that scale.”

    While terror-related plots declined over the past 20 years, Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate crime became more prevelant, with nearly 2,000 instances of anti-Muslim hate crimes recorded by the FBI in the last decade, according to FBI data.

    “Muslims Americans are still regarded as suspicious and subjected to surveillance by security agencies. The methods of surveillance may have changed … but the fact of surveillance is constant,” Patel said.

    Where are we today?

    Surveillance programs are baked into laws, institutions and policies, Patel said, and technology has made gathering information faster and more intrusive. NSA programs analyzing U.S. phone records, while amended, still remain, as well as programs collecting user information from internet service providers. FBI’s loosened guidelines around investigations are still also in place and fusion centers are still in operation. A lawsuit challenging the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program prompted the reinstatement of a consent decree known as the “Handschu Agreement” that mandates government oversight. This created the Handschu Committee, which consists of a civilian monitor that reviews and submits monthly reports on NYPD investigations of First Amendment-protected religious and political activity. While theHandschu agreement has led to fewer investigation applications put forth by the NYPD, advocates including those at the ACLU of New York feel that it’s not enough oversight, and that surveillance of Muslims as well as other groups continues outside thescope of the constitution. .

    “One of the consequences of these sort of really low standards for initiating surveillance is that it gives reign to people who want to spy on protests,” Patel said.

    Models for what extremist groups look like and the national security apparatus have changed significantly in 20 years, as well.

    “Before 9/11, national security used to be defined in terms of intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. After 9/11, the national security priority was nongovernmental organizations that carried out acts of mass destruction. Since then, national security has come to focus on small groups with homemade explosives and small arms,” Kurzman said. “The level of violence surrounding these designations has gotten lower and lower, and each step lower justifies keeping large-scale counterterrorism programs in place.”

    Today, the greatest concern around domestic violent extremism are white supremacists and militia groups, per a recent intelligence report released in March of this year.

    “I think we consider it collectively the most significant terrorism-related threat impacting the homeland,” Mayorkas told Yahoo News in June.

    But the psychological impact on surveillance post-9/11 on Muslim Americans still echoes throughout communities today.

    “When you have a government saying that this particular racial, religious group is suspect, it interferes with their religious practice. I have known individuals who don’t want to look Muslim in public due to fear of unwarranted attention,” Mohamed said. “There’s a lot of community fear and mistrust, it chills free speech, you see a lot of individuals who don’t want to go to protests, who don’t want to be engaged in politics don’t want to be involved in places that may be controversial, out of fear that they’re going to become targets of law enforcement.”

    For Bahe, a brush with surveillance nearly derailed his efforts to give back to his community. But he’s still running his organization today. .

    “I saw this as pretty much a test, if you are about this life, you have to be even bigger and stronger, so that’s what catapulted me to becoming even more active and more public and saying you know what, I’m not going to let these people stop me for doing good, this is what Islam is about.”

    Saher Khan and Vignesh Ramachandran

    Find this story at 16 September 2021