By GILLIAN FLACCUS
SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Advocacy groups sued the FBI and the Department of Justice on Tuesday for failing to turn over records they requested on surveillance in the Muslim-American community.
The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the Muslim groups, alleges that the FBI has turned over only four pages of documents to community leaders, despite a Freedom of Information Act request filed more than a year ago. The documents were not related to surveillance.
The request sought records that described FBI guidelines and policies for surveillance and investigation of Muslim religious organizations, as well as specific information about FBI inquiries targeting 11 groups or people.
The lawsuit states that all the plaintiffs — who include some of the most prominent Muslim leaders in California — have reason to believe they have been investigated by the FBI since January 2001.
"It sends a message that Muslim-Americans have been, and continue to be, cooperating with law enforcement, but they're concerned there might be a disproportionate focus ... on their religious practices," said ACLU attorney Ranjana Natarajan.
One plaintiff, Shakeel Syed, said that his organization and others have spent three years building a relationship with the FBI but that the agency's resistance to the request was troubling.
"I think it is in the best interests of the government to come clean and be transparent and forthright," said Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. "This is a credibility issue."
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said she could not comment on pending litigation but released a statement from J. Stephen Tidwell, the FBI's assistant director in charge for Los Angeles.
"The FBI does not investigate individuals or groups based on their lawful activities, religious or political beliefs," Tidwell said.
A message left for the Department of Justice after business hours was not returned.
The groups filed an initial FOIA request in May 2006, several months after federal law enforcement officials confirmed the existence of a classified radiation monitoring program used in surveillance at mosques, homes and businesses. At its peak, the secret program tested the air around 120 sites a day for signs of radiation that could be linked to terrorism.
The FBI responded to the request first by saying it couldn't identify any records that met the criteria requested. After an appeal, the agency turned over four pages that dealt with the Council of American-Islamic Relations and Hussam Ayloush, the council's executive director for Southern California.
Those documents dealt with a suspected hate crime at a mosque that the council had reported to the FBI and a conversation Ayloush had with an FBI agent about cooperating with federal law enforcers, Natarajan said.
She said she believes there are many more records because each plaintiff has been interviewed by the FBI or stopped at airports for questioning. The FBI, in its responses, indicted it searched only files that hold information on active criminal investigations instead of more general files that could encompass surveillance activities, she said.
Ayloush, who said he is questioned by federal agents every time he flies internationally, said he had hoped the FOIA request would help him determine why he is stopped.The government has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit.
"Either ... we're being stopped because we're Muslims — which is morally wrong — or that the government must have some erroneous info linked to me that I need to be able to clear," he said.