Tuesday, May 23, 2006

FBI asked to share any proof of spying on Muslims
Kelly Rush, Staff Writer

Muslims across Southern California who say they've been questioned by the FBI and some who suspect they've been spied on are asking the federal agency to reveal whether it is monitoring worshippers and mosques.
The American Civil Liberties Union on Monday filed a Freedom of Information Act request in FBI offices in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., on behalf of 12 groups, including mosques in San Gabriel, Corona, Los Angeles, Hawthorne and Anaheim.

The 19-point information request seeks any documents on the Muslims or groups and any proof they've been infiltrated, questioned or surveilled.

Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Anaheim-based Islamic Shura Council, and one of the requesters, said Monday he has reason to believe he's been spied on.

Syed, whose organization represents mosques across Southern California, said Muslims have reported being questioned about imams and sermons, and Muslim students have reported being questioned about what associations they belong to.

He said Muslims for years now have reported being interviewed by government officials about their faith, how they worship and why they're in the United States.

"There is every reason for us to suspect; in this instance, I hope and pray my suspicions are wrong," Syed said.

Stephen Tidwell, assistant director of the FBI Los Angeles office, released a statement in which he denied FBI agents have ever improperly monitored Muslims.

"As we have said in the past, the FBI does not investigate anyone based on their lawful activities, religious or political beliefs," Tidwell said. "There are instances where specific information is received about an individual where investigative steps may be taken, or interviews conducted. In each case, these steps are taken within existing Department of Justice guidelines and the law."

The Freedom of Information request comes at a time when President Bush is under increased scrutiny over the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program.

Bush insisted Tuesday the government does not eavesdrop on domestic phone calls without proper court approval but declined to discuss the government's alleged compiling of phone records or whether it amounts to an invasion of privacy.

White House officials later said Bush's comments were not confirmation of news reports that the NSA's surveillance is broader than originally thought and that it included secretly collecting millions of phone records.

Renjana Natarajan, an ACLU attorney, said the information request was filed both to get answers from the FBI and to calm the fears of worshippers.

"The FBI generally has said they're conducting investigations to protect the country and national security, but there really haven't been specific answers," she said. "People have been asked what mosque they attend or what the imam says, where they went on religious pilgrimages and how many stops they made. They're really questions that are at the heart of our religious constitutional freedoms."

Tidwell said the FBI is increasing outreach programs particularly for religious and civic groups from Muslims and Sikhs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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