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Judge sides with FBI in OC Muslim spying suit

Published time: August 15, 2012 16:04
Edited time: August 15, 2012 20:04
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images / AFP

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images / AFP

A US federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against the FBI over the agency’s controversial practice of spying on California Muslims, arguing the disclosure of a potentially unconstitutional domestic spy program might reveal sensitive state secrets.

District Judge Cormac J. Carney ruled that “the state secrets privilege may unfortunately mean the sacrifice of individual liberties for the sake of national security,” the LA Times reported.

Judge Carney claims to have reached his conclusion after reviewing confidential statements by top FBI officials. The judge ruled that the domestic espionage program – dubbed Operation Flex – involved "intelligence that, if disclosed, would significantly compromise national security.”

The lawsuit against the FBI was filed jointly by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) in 2011, on behalf of the Muslim community in Orange Country, California.

The litigants claim the FBI violated their civil liberties by employing an undercover informant, identified as Craig Monteilh, in a dragnet operation that targeted individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs. Monteilh infiltrated local mosques and installed bugging devices in offices, homes and places of worship.

ACLU attorney Peter Bibring said the ruling is "terribly unfortunate that there's a doctrine in the law that allows courts to throw out cases that allege serious constitutional violations based on secret evidence the judge reviews behind closed doors that never sees the light of day," the LA Times cited him as saying. "That shouldn't be in a democratic society.”

The plaintiffs vowed to appeal the decision.

Monteilh previously admitted to spying on the Islamic Center of Irvine from July 2006 to October 2007, as well as ten other Southern California mosques.

Financial incentives and pressure from his FBI handler led him to use entrapment and other unethical tactics to ensnare targets “on a daily basis for over a year,” Monteilh said to RT in April. He also described how blackmail was used to force other Muslims to turn informant.

“That was part of my role in Operation Flex,” he said. “For example, in my conversations, or in their private conversations, certain things would come up. Like if a Muslim man was married and he had a girlfriend, a mistress, the FBI would use that information to blackmail that individual to become an informant. Or someone, perhaps, had a different sexual orientation. Or a certain youth had recreational drug use or desire to use certain narcotics. The FBI would use this information to blackmail them to become an informant.”

Montelih explained how the FBI supplied him with ‘fobs’ – sophisticated surveillance devices the size of a car remote – which he routinely planted at “the Imams’ offices, in certain board members’ offices, certain worshippers’ cars, in their homes” and “around the mosques where I would frequently pray.” He also described using a secret video recorder that had been sewn into his shirt.

He claims the operation eventually expanded abroad, and grew to involve the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Monteilh was previously convicted and served time for cashing fraudulent checks. He also filed a suit against the government, alleging that his rights had been violated and his life was endangered while employed by the FBI. His case was dismissed earlier this year.

A portion of the case may still go to trial, with Judge Carney branding some of the civil liberties violations of Operation Flex “disturbing.”

Judge Carney permitted the suit to stand against five individual FBI agents – though not the entire bureau – under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The act, signed into law in 1978, imposed certain procedures for the physical and electronic surveillance and collection of “foreign intelligence information” between “foreign powers” and “agents of foreign powers,” which in some cases may include American citizens and permanent residents suspected of being engaged in espionage.

The FBI admitted that Monteilh was used during the operation, but has denied engaging in any unconstitutional practices, claiming that the bureau was investigating credible evidence of potential terrorist activity.

Attorneys representing two of the agents being charged say there is little they can do to defend their clients against Monteilh’s accusations, as the information surrounding their investigation was classified.

“Our clients literally are defenseless to defend themselves,” attorney David Scheper said. “It's just not a fair fight.”

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