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US Supreme Court rules in favour of FBI in Californian Muslims spying case

29th Apr 2022
US Supreme Court rules in favour of FBI in Californian Muslims spying case

Plantifs (L-R), Imam Yassir Fazaga, Egyptian national Yasser Abdel Rahim and Ali Uddin Malik claim the Federal Bureau of Investigation was unlawfully spying on them after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
(Credit: Gabriela Domenzain/UCLA)

Elham Asaad Buaras

The United States Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in a case involving claims of discrimination by three Californian Muslims who claimed the agency was unlawfully spying on them after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

A lower court ruled in 2019 that a federal law regulating government surveillance known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act superseded the secret-state privilege—protection based on national security—that the government asserted.

The case will now be returned to the lower courts for further litigation, with the plaintiffs’ claims yet to be dismissed.

The Supreme Court overturned the San Francisco-based nineth US Circuit Court of Appeals’ opinion, with Justice Samuel Alito concluding on March 4 that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act clause “does not displace the state secrets privilege.”

It was alleged in the lawsuit that FBI agents targeted Muslim Americans for surveillance based solely on their religion.

It accused the FBI of engaging in religious discrimination in violation of the US Constitution’s First Amendment by targeting Muslims. In addition, it violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.

The three plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, are Yassir Fazaga, an imam at the Orange County Islamic Foundation; worshippers at the Islamic Centre of Irvine; Ali Uddin Malik; and Yasser Abdel Rahim, a US permanent resident from Egypt.

The American Civil Liberties Union branded the court verdict “a dangerous sign for religious freedom and government accountability.”

“The Supreme Court’s embrace of the state secrets’ privilege gives the government every incentive to continue invoking ‘state secrets’ to conceal abuses and thwart accountability in the courts,” the group said. It added, however, that the case now goes back to the US appeals court, “where we will once again argue that the government’s secrecy claims are wrong.”

“Our clients deserve justice—as do countless other Muslim Americans who have had their rights and privacy violated in the last 20 years since the government wrongly and disproportionately subjected Muslim Americans to surveillance following 9/11,” the American Civil Liberties Union said.

The lawsuit focused on a period between 2006 and 2007 when the FBI paid an informant named Craig Monteilh to gather information on Muslims. According to court papers, Monteilh met with Muslims in southern California, adopted a Muslim name, and said he wanted to convert to Islam. He also recorded conversations and conducted surveillance.

The arrangement unravelled when Monteilh started making statements about wanting to take violent action. Community members reported him to the local police and obtained a restraining order against him, according to court papers.

A federal judge in 2012 dismissed the claims against the FBI, determining that they were barred under the state secrets privilege. The judge permitted claims accusing some individual FBI agents of violating the surveillance law. The 9th Circuit ruled that the religious claims should instead be analysed under a section of the FISA law that lets judges review the legality of the surveillance.

The 9th Circuit also allowed the unlawful search claims, not at issue before the Supreme Court, to move forward.

 

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