Civil Liberties Groups Write to White House, Express Concerns Over Intercept Story on NSA & FBI Surveillance

By Wells Bennett
Wednesday, July 9, 2014, 2:31 PM

In response to today's Intercept story on NSA and FBI surveillance of Muslim Americans, a large coalition of civil liberties and human rights groups have written to the White House---and, among other things, asked the Obama Administration for a "full and public accounting" of the surveillance described in the story.  Here is the letter (which I happened upon while reading some further coverage from Charlie Savage of the New York Times):

Dear Mr. President,

The undersigned civil rights, human rights, privacy rights and faith-based organizations write to express our concerns following a report published by First Look Media indicating that the FBI and NSA targeted American Muslim community leaders for secret surveillance. We call on your Administration to provide a full public accounting of these practices and to strengthen protections against the infringement of civil liberties and human rights. We also request a meeting with you, Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI director James Comey to discuss these matters.

While we do not know all of the facts of the individual reported cases, we believe the government has an obligation to explain the basis for its actions. Moreover, we cannot presume that the government acted without prejudice or bias. Too often, both in the past and in the present, we have observed the government engaging in patterns of discriminatory and abusive surveillance.

In an earlier era, during the 1960s and 1970s, civil rights leaders, activists and members of minority communities were subjected to unlawful and abusive government surveillance based not on what they had done, but what they believed and who they were. Despite reform efforts, abusive practices continue today. Federal, state, and local law enforcement are targeting entire communities—particularly American Muslims—for secret surveillance based on their race, religion, ethnicity or national origin.

The First Look report is troubling because it arises in this broader context of abuse. Documents obtained through an American Civil Liberties Union Freedom of Information Act request show that the FBI has been mapping a broad spectrum of communities, including American Muslim communities, the African American community and Latino American communities, without any basis for individualized suspicion. Under the guise of community outreach, the FBI targeted mosques and Muslim community organizations for intelligence gathering. It has pressured law-abiding American Muslims to become informants against their own communities, often in coercive circumstances. It has also stigmatized innocent Muslims by placing them on the No Fly List and other watch lists. In short, the government’s  domestic counterterrorism policies treat entire minority communities as suspect, and American Muslims have borne the brunt of government suspicion, stigma and abuse.

These practices hurt not only American Muslims, but all communities that expect law enforcement to serve and protect America’s diverse population equally, without discrimination. They strike the bedrock of democracy: that no one should grow up fearful of law enforcement, scared to exercise the rights to freedom of speech, association and worship.

Federal agencies must fulfill their important law enforcement and security missions consistent with the Constitution and this nation’s laws, with effective checks and balances and public oversight. To that end, we urge you, as many of the undersigned organizations have previously and repeatedly urged your Administration, to strengthen the Department of Justice’s Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies (“DOJ Guidance”). The DOJ Guidance was an important step forward in clarifying the Justice Department’s position against racial profiling in law enforcement when it was crafted in 2003. However, it must be amended to ban profiling on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or national origin, and loopholes in the DOJ Guidance that permit all forms of racial profiling in the national security and border contexts must be closed.

The need for these amendments is critical given the proliferation of new forms of technology used by law enforcement to conduct surveillance of all Americans—and particularly minority communities and their members. While we are still learning about the cases reported by First Look and cannot draw firm conclusions about what effect a revised DOJ Guidance would have had in these instances, we believe that now more than ever, your Administration needs to repudiate the notion that racial profiling is ever acceptable.

To be sure, we do not know the scale of surveillance conducted pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act on American Muslim community leaders and whether there is a pattern of discriminatory abuse in this particular context. Yet that is in large part because of government secrecy. Unnecessary government secrecy surrounding the government’s surveillance activities invites abuse and feeds the sense that surveillance is being use for illegitimate ends. We cannot trust government assurances of fairness and legality when surveillance is being conducted without sufficient public oversight. As a first step, we urge you to provide the public with the information necessary to meaningfully assess the First Look report.

As organizations that support your commitment to equal protection, we look forward to working with your Administration to strengthen civil liberties and human rights safeguards for all. Thank you.