American pop culture is saturated with talk of spies and informants, but that world is not merely theatrical abstracts.
Last month, the CIA launched an internal investigation regarding its cooperation with the NYPD’s anti-terrorism operations. The probe will examine how undercover informants were sent into the New York City area’s Muslim communities after 9/11. These secret spy networks have been monitoring local mosques and conducting operations against their leaders. To assume that Muslim Americans need to be spied on when there is no evidence of offense is a threat to American civil liberties. Profiling communities based on their religion or ethnicity is a direct contradiction to the First Amendment. Freedom of religion also means the freedom to worship without fear of finding yourself praying next to a “mosque crawler.”
In 2009, Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah was killed in a raid by federal agents in the city of Dearborn, Michigan. Abdullah, the religious leader of the Masjid Al-Haqq mosque in Detroit, had been shadowed and followed by the FBI during the two years preceding his death. Undercover agents posing as Muslim converts were trying to pin him down as a “separatist Muslim intent on overthrowing the United States government.” He had never been accused of terrorism, and yet was consistently approached by informants posed as Muslim converts. To those who knew him, Abdullah was most interested in cleaning up the community of drugs and gang violence. Spying on an important community leader causes tensions and push some to question whether America is still a liberal democracy.
The use of informants to spy on local communities has been practiced well before 9/11. During the 1950s and 60s, a domestic surveillance program called COINTELPRO was used to monitor groups perceived to be dangerous. The FBI used the counterintelligence program to target civil rights groups and anti-war movements, many of whose members were African American. These covert operations used tactics ranging from wrongful imprisonment to assassination to infiltrate groups like the black nationalists and American Indian movement. The program was aborted in 1971, but its tactics continue to haunt local ethnic and religious communities.
Informants have been tasked to hunt for something in Muslim American communities. But these operations were directed at individuals with no criminal records or evidence of future misdeed. According to Mother Jones reporter Trevor Aaronson, “Informants have said in court testimony that FBI handlers have tasked them with infiltrating mosques without a specific target or 'predicate' — the term of art for the reason why someone is investigated. They were, they say, directed to survey law-abiding Americans with no indication of criminal intent.” The operations were, instead, simply racial profiling.
So where do our constitutional rights lie in the midst of these spy games? The idea of selecting groups based on ethnicity and religion to be infiltrated translates directly into racial profiling, which is troubling because it means that members of a community are assumed to be more likely to be guilty of crimes merely because they are members of the Muslim-American community. This leads to many problems, including the fact that our freedoms of speech and religion cannot be fully exercised if heavy handed tactics are being used against American citizens of any background. But an internal investigation signals that accountability is the first step in protecting the future of our human rights.
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