(RNS) When a local Muslim activist told Chuck Warpehoski that the FBI was using undercover informants to collect information on people attending mosques, he knew the issue couldn’t be ignored.
After all, Warpehoski said, his group, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, had once been the target of FBI surveillance during the Vietnam War.
So Warpehoski, a Quaker, wrote a letter earlier this year to Attorney General Eric Holder, urging him to investigate the allegations and review FBI policies on profiling and surveillance. “If there is a reason to investigate, there is a reason,” he said. “But to investigate just because of religious affiliation is not sufficient.”
Warpehoski said a local Muslim activist told him about the FBI surveillance program, but as he sees it, it’s not just an issue for Muslim groups. If G-men can infiltrate a mosque, why not a church, synagogue or temple?
“We see this as an interfaith issue. It concerns all of us,” he said.
The problem, however, is that so far the program has attracted little interest, attention or concern among non-Muslim groups. Numerous religious groups either declined to comment or said they didn’t know enough to comment, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Episcopalians, Lutherans, the National Council of Churches, Reform Jews or religious liberty groups like the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.
FBI surveillance guidelines are covered in a 270-page manual known as the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide. Released on Dec. 1, 2008, the manual has come under fire from Muslim and civil liberty organizations.
Critics claim the guidelines allow the FBI to use informants or undercover agents to conduct religious profiling through a special class of investigations, called “assessments,” on people even when they have no connection to criminal activity.
“It allows for the monitoring and the collection of data on individuals, based on their race, ethnicity, as well on what jobs they might hold,” said Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, a San Francisco-based advocacy group.
“There’s a specific reference to the collection of data on people who have a cultural tradition of charitable giving during a particular time of year. So while it doesn’t explicitly say Muslims, it’s hard not to read it as targeting Muslims” during the holy month of Ramadan, when charitable giving is paramount.
What’s more, critics say that while the guidelines seem to focus on Muslim groups, they also could be used abusively against any religious groups by overzealous or biased agents, such as an anti-Semite, someone with a grudge against the Catholic Church, or a vindictive atheist.
“People of all faith communities should be concerned because it gives the power to the FBI to be able to infiltrate any religious community,” Khera said.
In an interview, the FBI’s General Counsel, Valerie Caproni, disputed the claim that the guidelines allow profiling or lacked sufficient controls to prevent abuse.
“We’ve always been able to open investigations,” she said. “What is new is formalizing it and putting in a lot more controls in terms of saying you’ve got to actually open an assessment, so there’s a paperwork trail of `what did you have, what did you start with, and what did you do?’ That’s all subject to review by supervisors.”
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Caproni acknowledged that the FBI uses undercover informants, but said its preferred tactic was to have agents develop open relationships with community figures. “We tell people you have to use the least intrusive alternative to get to whatever you’re trying to get to,” she said.
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While Muslim groups have applauded the solidarity of groups like the Interfaith Council in Ann Arbor, they say they are the exception.
“It’s understood that this is only going to target Muslims. And if it’s only going to affect Muslims, why worry about it?” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington.
Nathan Diament, the top Washington lobbyist for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, said he hasn’t “heard concerns expressed about this,” though he said the FBI has “actively worked over the last several years to try and balance civil liberties concerns with law enforcement and security concerns.”
This is not the first time the FBI has been criticized for spying on religious communities or figures. Perhaps the best known episode is the FBI’s surveillance of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who the agency suspected was tied to communists. In 1944, the FBI wiretapped and spied on “the Bergson group,” a protest group founded by activist Peter Bergson that agitated for the U.S. to rescue Jews from Nazi Germany.
Warpehoski said records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that a member of his group was acting as an FBI informant between 1969 and 1972, and even attempted to entrap the group. “There was a person in the group that said non-violence wasn’t working, and that we needed to escalate,” said Warpehoski. “The allegations I hear today remind me of what happened here.”