Supporters of the Patriot Act and other expansive efforts to fight the “war on terror” often mock claims by civil libertarians that aggressive federal spying powers within the United States undermines civil liberties. We've often heard conservatives ask critics to name anyone who has lost any freedoms because of the government's post-9/11 powers.
Yet such dismissive attitudes toward government snooping are easily rebutted by recent events in Orange County. A convicted con artist named Craig Monteilh admitted last month that he infiltrated local mosques on behalf of the FBI and recorded conversations about the possibility of blowing up buildings. Although the FBI won't confirm Mr. Monteilh's identity, the agency acknowledges that one suspect had been secretly recorded by an informant, according to a Register report.
Local Muslims say that Mr. Monteilh, who went by Farouk al-Aziz, tried to bait them into discussing radical politics. Hussam Ayloush, head of the greater Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Anaheim, told us that Mr. Monteilh went from one young Muslim to another and engaged in radical discourse that promoted terrorism. Some people, he said, stopped going to mosque to avoid these discussions. Some mosque-goers contacted the FBI to report the incident but were referred to the Irvine Police Department, he said. Mr. Ayloush said those men who called the authorities then became the subject of FBI interrogations.
We've heard reports that Muslims are afraid to talk about politics or civil liberties issues within their mosques or even among their friends because of fear that it will draw attention from undercover agents. We agree with Mr. Ayloush, that “there should not be a presumption of guilt among an entire community.” This could backfire, he explained, as the FBI should supposedly work with American Muslims in the event of a terrorist threat, not treat them as adversaries by creating fear of surveillance within mosques.
Everyone understands the need for legitimate undercover activities in response to credible evidence. But we cannot fathom the justification for fishing expeditions and entrapment. Nationwide, some of the supposed terrorist “plots” the FBI has claimed to have foiled have simply been cases of entrapment involving Muslims without the intent or wherewithal or to pull off any attacks.
Infiltrating mosques without evidence of crime is an affront to the First Amendment. We know the retort from the law-and-order crowd: If you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to fear. That is the motto of a police state. Law-abiding, honest, terrorism-hating Americans have every legitimate reason to watch their words in front of a federal agent. No one wants to face trouble with powerful government agencies. So the natural tendency is to stay quiet or avoid places the government might be monitoring. That's what people always have done in totalitarian and authoritarian nations.
The FBI's activities have led a consortium of Muslim groups to “consider suspending ongoing outreach efforts with the FBI.” We can hardly blame them. Perhaps the Obama administration will rethink this counterproductive and un-American strategy.