Los Angeles: US Attorney General Eric Holder
has invoked state secrets rules to prevent information from
being released in a lawsuit filed by Southern California
Muslims who claim the FBI monitored their activities solely
because of their religion.
In a legal declaration filed late Monday, Holder makes a
rare assertion of the state secrets privilege, arguing that it
could cause significant harm to national security if the
government is forced to reveal the subjects of a
mosque-surveillance operation in 2006 and describe how the
monitoring was carried out.
A judge must weigh the request, which comes after many details from the investigation, dubbed Operation Flex, have already been made public.
The key informant in the case, Craig Monteilh, turned
against the FBI and described how his agency handlers taught
him to ingratiate himself into the Orange County Muslim
community then secretly gather cell phone numbers, email
addresses and record conversations.
Monteilh claims the FBI even told him to talk openly
about jihad in an attempt to solicit terrorist sentiments from
community members. But instead of responding to his violent
rhetoric, mosque-goers called the FBI to say they were worried
about his statements.
Holder`s declaration came in a motion to dismiss the
bulk of a lawsuit filed against the FBI in February by the
ACLU of Southern California and the Los Angeles office of the
Council on American-Islamic Relations. Many of the allegations
were based on Monteilh`s claims.
The FBI has said it does not initiate counter-terrorism
operations based solely on a group`s religion.
In its filing, the agency said a range of details
Monteilh provided for Operation Flex remain properly protected
counter-terrorism investigative information.
"This includes ... precisely what that investigation
entailed and why it was undertaken, the identity of particular
subjects, and the reasons they were investigated," the
Holder goes on to argue that if individuals knew they were under surveillance, they could "anticipate the actions of law enforcement and intelligence officers, possibly leading to counter-surveillance that could place federal agents at higher risk."
The Department of Justice said in a statement Tuesday it conducted a thorough review "to provide greater accountability for the use of privilege" by invoking it only in seeking dismissal of Monteilh`s claims of illegal electronic surveillance.
"Officials specifically looked for a way to allow this case to proceed while carving out national security information, and concluded that some information about the allegations could be made available without compromising sensitive national security information," the statement said.
ACLU attorney Peter Bibring said it was extremely unusual for the government to invoke the state secrets privilege, especially in a domestic case being investigated by a domestic law enforcement agency. The secrecy rules are usually only requested in extraordinary matters overseas, such as the targeted killing by drones or extraordinary rendition.
"The government`s position here is the FBI`s conduct should be beyond the review of the courts, which would render the protections of the constitution meaningless," Bibring said. "Following the government`s argument, any domestic law enforcement operation deemed to effect national security would be beyond review."