Chicago Tribune : Federal prosecutor seeks reports of mosque spying

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Federal prosecutor seeks reports of mosque spying

By JEFF KAROUB | Associated Press Writer | April 30, 2009

DEARBORN, Mich. - The top federal prosecutor in Detroit on Thursday encouraged Muslims to report allegations the FBI hired informants to infiltrate mosques and spy on leaders and worshippers.

U.S. Attorney Terrence Berg told Arab- and Muslim-American community leaders during a round-table discussion in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn that such allegations have not been brought to his attention. But he said his office takes allegations of domestic spying "extremely seriously."

"Bring it to us. Tell us," Berg said at the meeting, which included other local, state and federal law enforcement officials as well as members of the Detroit area's large Arab and Muslim community. "If there's misconduct going on, we'd like to know what it is."

The meeting, called by the Dearborn-based Congress of Arab American Organizations, was the first such gathering since Michigan Muslims in April asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate several complaints to civil rights groups related to spying on Muslims.

The most complaints, they have said, came from people with pending Immigration issues being approached by agents to monitor mosques in exchange for help in resolving their citizenship cases.

Reports have grown in the Detroit area after an agent testified in February that an informant infiltrated mosques in Orange County, Calif., and befriended Ahmadullah Niazi, brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden's bodyguard. Niazi was charged with lying about his ties to terrorist groups on his citizenship and passport applications.

A federal judge in California last week said he would review records of FBI inquiries into several Muslim groups and activists claiming they have been unfairly spied on and questioned. Judge Cormac J. Carney ordered the FBI to turn over more than 100 pages of documents to determine whether the information should be released to the public or protected.

Some Islamic leaders have called it a "fishing expedition" -- a phrase repeated Thursday by community members -- a characterization the FBI denies.

"I'm not a fisherman," said Andrew Arena, special agent in charge of the FBI in Detroit. "The FBI doesn't go on a fishing expedition, period."

Arena said the agency works with informants on numerous fronts but isn't targeting mosques or entering any institution unlawfully or without justifiable cause. He said he was disappointed that complaints haven't been brought to his attention, particularly given his work with community groups and relationships with local Arabs and Muslims.

Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he was glad to hear Arena say "he has nothing to hide," and hopes for an investigation to "clear the air." Likewise, he said, mosques are open to the FBI and the community at large.

A dispute between the national headquarters of the FBI and CAIR also was discussed. The Washington-based group, which has offices in 20 states, was one of hundreds of Muslim individuals and groups named as unindicted coconspirators in a terrorism-financing trial in Texas. CAIR is fighting the label in court.

The unresolved dispute has led the FBI headquarters to cut ties with CAIR, a call Arena heeded when he kept Walid off the invitation list at recent meeting of law enforcement, community and civil rights leaders held at the FBI's Detroit office.

Despite the discord between the organizations, Arena said he has nothing personal against Walid and they shook hands after the meeting.

Walid finds the disengagement disappointing. He said many Muslims now have an unfavorable view of the FBI, which he said is "bad for law enforcement, bad for civil rights organizations and bad for Americans."

Osama Siblani, spokesman for the Congress of Arab American Organizations and publisher of the Arab American News, said his community has "difficult issues" with some federal agencies but told attendees that discussions should continue.

"You need to know you have a partner to make our country safe," he said.