FBI limits work with Muslim civil rights group amid dispute
Some vow to stop cooperating with agency amid dispute
Gregg Krupa | April 27, 2009
The FBI has suspended much of its work with the nation's largest civil rights organization for Muslims after cooperating for years on the training of agents and outreach to Muslims.
A host of Muslim and Arab organizations have threatened to stop cooperating with the FBI until the dispute over the Council on American Islamic Relations is resolved.
The issue, which is playing out amid large Muslim and Arab populations in Metro Detroit and nationally, is eroding relations between Muslims and law enforcement, Muslim leaders say. FBI officials also express concern about the impact on those relationships, which both consider integral to protecting national security and civil rights.
"The FBI has had to limit its formal contact with CAIR field offices until certain issues are addressed by CAIR's national headquarters," said Assistant FBI Director John Miller, concerning action that was taken, but not announced, last autumn. "CAIR's leadership is aware of this. Beyond that, we have no further comment."
Officials of CAIR, which has 35 field offices in 19 states, say they have not been informed of the concerns. But at a trial in Dallas last year of a major Muslim charity, the prosecution presented evidence that two CAIR officials participated in a 1993 meeting about how to represent Hamas in the United States.
Establishing CAIR may have resulted from that effort, an FBI agent suggested in her testimony. And CAIR was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case, a designation it has contested in court.
While FBI officials would not say publicly why it has ended most cooperation with CAIR, privately they say the FBI would be hard-pressed to explain why it would continue to engage as a partner an organization with two leaders who attended such a meeting.
CAIR officials deny the organization is a front for Hamas, or that it was organized as a result of the conversation the FBI recorded in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, President Bill Clinton did not designate Hamas as a terrorist organization until 1995.
"Our work has been overwhelmingly based upon issues directly affecting Muslims, from giving diversity trainings, empowering Muslims through civic engagement trainings and in taking discrimination cases," said Dawud Walid, the executive director of CAIR-Michigan. "Probably not even 1 percent of CAIR's work in the past 15 years has been related to the grievances of Palestinians. This does not reflect the work of an alleged front group for people in the Gaza Strip."
Officials of CAIR and defense lawyers in the Muslim charity case say no evidence was presented that CAIR intended to work on behalf of Hamas or that it was established as a result of the recorded conversation.
While the U.S. and other governments consider Hamas a terrorist group, many Muslims and Arabs consider it a resistance group, and say Palestinians have a right to resist Israel.
The prosecution sought to establish that 18 Hamas sympathizers attended the meeting. One is identified only as "Nihad." The FBI said it identified the man as Nihad Awad, the current executive director of CAIR, by the sound of his voice.
Awad did not return calls seeking comment. In a sworn deposition in a separate case, Awad said he did not recall attending the meeting.
Omar Ahmad, a founder and board member of CAIR, also is identified as a participant. Ahmad did not respond to requests for an interview.
However, the link between the meeting and the founding of CAIR remains unclear. The stated purpose of the participants in the recorded conversation was to establish a low-profile group, not readily identified with Muslims, which would work quietly to promote the concerns of Hamas in 1993.
"How can we possibly be the group described when from the very start the word 'Islamic' in the name Council on American Islamic Relations has identified us as a Muslim group and when we are the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the United States?" said Corey Saylor, the legislative director of CAIR.
Meanwhile, the FBI said it will continue to review civil rights complaints filed by CAIR.
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