A case of the FBI allegedly spying on mosques illegally throughout Orange County is expected to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. 

Roughly five years after 9/11, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation decided to pay and send an informant, Craig Monteilh, to Mosques in Orange County posing as a Muslim convert, according to the lawsuit filed by the ACLU.

“The informant indiscriminately gathered names, telephone numbers and e-mails, as well as information on the religious and political beliefs of hundreds of individuals who were simply exercising their Constitutional right to religious freedom. Ironically, congregants became increasingly concerned about the informant’s behavior, ultimately reporting him to the FBI,” reads a Monday news release from the ACLU.

The lawsuit alleges that the FBI violated First Amendment’s religious freedom provision and that the bureau unlawfully collected information on religious practices, violating the Privacy Act. 

It also alleges the bureau violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure and calls for the FBI to destroy the information collected and pay damages to the targets of the surveillance.

For over a year, Monteilh gathered information after publicly converting to Islam.

Malek Bendelhoum, Executive Director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, said Monteilh would go around Mosques and talk about “the need to do something extreme.”

“He was literally trying to entice people towards some type of extreme action or violence or something of that nature which was the reason he was reported,” Bendelhoum said in a Tuesday phone interview.

The council is an umbrella organization of mosques and Muslim nonprofits operating in the region.

Mohammad Tajsar, senior staff attorney with the ACLU SoCal, said Monteilh started conversations about “violent jihad,” making people nervous and went to at least five mosques in the county, including the Islamic Center of Irvine.

“This was not an isolated incident. There was a long documented history of the FBI targeting Muslims in their places of worship,” he said in a Tuesday phone interview. “The other thing that’s interesting and unique about this particular episode is that the government actually did this surveillance and spying despite publicly — at the same time — telling the community that it wasn’t doing that.”

Azeem Syed, chair of the council, said the whole ordeal brought about mistrust in an already insulated community towards the FBI but also people who Muslims came across at Mosques.

“Once the details of the case came out, a lot more explanations and a kind of reconciliation was done about the fact that this was an externally perpetrated sting operation. One that was not only crossing the lines of legalities but sowing seeds of discord within a community, I think we quickly realized that we had to stick together,” Syed said.

The FBI operation never brought about any terrorism charges or criminal convictions. 

According to the ACLU, Monteilh was instructed by the FBI to focus on the most devout members of the community.

Voice of OC reached out to the Bureau’s office in Los Angeles for comment who directed the news agency to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The public information officer with the U.S. Attorney’s Office did not respond.

In 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the Council of American Islamic Relations of Greater Los Angeles and the law firm of Hadsell Stormer Keeny Richardson & Renick filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a religious leader and two congregants against the FBI for targeting Muslims because of their religion.

Initially, the case was dismissed by the U.S. District Court in Santa Ana because it agreed with the government’s “state secrets” privilege in August of 2011.

But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. 

“The legal questions presented in this case have been many and difficult. We answer them on purely legal grounds, but of course realize that those legal answers will reverberate in the context of the larger ongoing national conversation about how reasonably to understand and respond to the threats posed by terrorism without fueling a climate of fear rooted in stereotypes and discrimination,” reads February 2019 ruling.

The Ninth Circuit found there’s a delicate balance between people’s rights and state secrets. 

“…the Government’s assertion of the state secrets privilege does not warrant dismissal of this litigation in its entirety, we, too, have recognized the need for balance, but also have heeded the conclusion at the heart of Congress’s enactment of FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act): the fundamental principles of liberty include devising means of forwarding accountability while assuring national security,” reads the ruling.

Tajsar also said there needs to be accountability. 

“Our system of checks and balances requires that courts be open to hearing claims that the government has violated the constitution,” Tajsar said in the Monday news release.

“The government shouldn’t be able to avoid accountability for unconstitutionally targeting U.S. citizens and permanent residents for surveillance in their homes here in the U.S. because of their religion, simply because they say the violations were part of a counterterrorism investigation”

In a Tuesday phone interview, Tajsar said the significance of the case is whether the Constitution applies to Muslims.

“That’s what’s at stake in this case,” he said.

Bendelhoum said before 9/11 people did not know what being a Muslim meant and after 9/11 there was misconception that Islam was about violence and terror.

“It made it extremely difficult on the community to be able to even just kind of feel confident about our identity, even though we know that it’s all bogus and all of these different things have nothing to do with Islam,” he said.

Bendelhoum said the actions of the FBI, a government agency charged with the responsibility of protecting people, created an extremely difficult scenario for Muslims.

For Bendelhoum, the ACLU winning the case would mean nothing like this could happen to the Muslim community again and any other community in the future.

“We’re not the first community that this has happened to but we are hoping that we will be the last community it happens to and  victory in this court case, now that it’s in the Supreme Court will be a step in the right direction,” he said.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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