Attempts to silence leading American Muslim civil advocacy groups continue in trials and intelligence agency actions that have all the hallmarks of an orchestrated witch-hunt, writes Abdus Sattar Ghazali*
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'Implicating mainstream Muslim groups was an apparent attempt to silence genuine Muslim voices while providing ammunition to anti-Muslim organisations. It was a US Department of Justice effort to smear the entire Muslim community'
In an apparent attempt to silence a leading American Muslim civil rights advocacy group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Republican Congressman Frank Wolf from Virginia has expressed deep disappointment at the FBI's insufficient response to his letter that apparently sought corroborative information on smears against CAIR by Muslim-bashers like Steven Emerson.
In a letter sent to FBI on 2 February, Wolf asked: "Has the FBI severed ties with CAIR? If so, how is the FBI planning to formally notify members of Congress and other government officials of this decision? If FBI policy has changed with regard to CAIR, is there any indication that this decision is being revisited by the new administration? If so, what new evidence would justify a change in course? Is CAIR's national office still in contact with the FBI?
"The [FOX News] report quotes Assistant Director John Miller from the FBI Office of Public Affairs as saying: 'The FBI has had to limit its formal contact with CAIR field offices until certain issues are addressed by CAIR's national headquarters.' What specifically are the "certain issues" which you have raised with CAIR? Is there still informal contact with any field offices? If so, what is the distinction between formal and informal and why is there a distinction between field offices? To your knowledge, does CAIR receive financial contributions from foreign sources? If so, which ones and how much?"
Congressman Frank Wolf, who has a track record of anti-Muslim bearing, sent this letter after FOX News reported that the FBI cut off ties with CAIR "amid mounting evidence that it has links to a support network for Hamas". Given that Hamas is on the current list of US designated foreign terrorist organisations, this is obviously a serious claim, one which would rightly inform a shift in FBI policy, Wolf wrote.
In response, Miller wrote: "As you know, we recently acknowledged that we have suspended any formal engagement with Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) field offices around the country. 'Formal' relationships as defined here means appointing or accepting CAIR or its representatives on any organised committee or group sponsored by the FBI. However, representatives of CAIR have the same access to the FBI as any other persons and are encouraged to report any crime or violation of civil rights.
"Members of the United States Government, especially those serving in a law enforcement capacity, have a duty to be judicious in our activities as representatives of the Federal Government. The adjustment in our contacts with CAIR comes in part as a result of evidence gathered through FBI investigation and presented in connection with the Holy Land Foundation trial. CAIR was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in that case."
However, Wolf was not satisfied with the FBI answer and on 9 March sent another letter which stated: "I was deeply disappointed with the FBI's response -- hand delivered to my office last Friday -- to my letter of 2 February inquiring about the Bureau's position on meeting with the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR).
"I would like these questions fully answered by this Friday, 13 March, and by someone who works on counter-terrorism, rather than a public affairs officer. Other members of Congress, both House and Senate, have expressed interest in additional information about the Bureau's position as it relates to CAIR. I would think the Bureau would be embarrassed to send the insufficient response I received."
POLITICALLY MOTIVATED HARASSMENT: Meanwhile, CAIR has charged that Wolf has abused his office by seeking to pressure the FBI to produce negative information about the Muslim civil rights and advocacy group. Wolf's attempt to obtain information to be used against CAIR may stem from CAIR's long history of criticism of the Virginia congressman's political stances.
It appears that Congressman Wolf is seeking payback for all the times CAIR and American Muslims have challenged his political positions using their constitutionally protected right to petition elected representatives, said CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad. It is unfortunate that Wolf has abused his office to pressure a government agency to target those he obviously views as political opponents.
Awad cited the numerous times CAIR butted heads with Wolf over the past 12 years.
In 1997, CAIR asked members of the American Muslim community to contact Wolf about his Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, which it said seemed to ignore the persecution of Muslims. Also that year, CAIR asked Muslims to contact Wolf, then chairman of the Transportation and Related Agencies Subcommittee, to raise questions about passenger profiling and about how the civil liberties of all travellers could be guaranteed.
In 1998, CAIR asked Muslims to contact leaders of a House-Senate conference committee and urge them to amend or eliminate new legislation that would create a National Commission on Terrorism. Wolf introduced the legislation to create the commission.
CAIR expressed concern about the objectivity of the proposed commission because of Wolf's legislative history, his apparent focus on Islam and Muslims and the backgrounds of several individuals proposed as members of the commission. The council said that a number of those put forward as possible commission members were associates of Muslim bashers who have targeted the American Muslim community as a threat to this society.
In 1999, CAIR called on the American Muslim community to defend a Muslim appointee to Wolf's National Commission on Terrorism by Representative Richard Gephardt (D-MO). The appointee, Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, was under attack by pro-Israel groups. A New York Post editorial attacking the appointment referred to a list of public statements compiled by terrorism expert Steven Emerson, the same Muslim- basher smearing CAIR.
In 2001, CAIR challenged a decision by Wolf's office to deny the right of an American Muslim leader of Sudanese heritage to attend a meeting to discuss policy toward Sudan on Capitol Hill. That leader, who was and is the imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) in Herndon, Virginia, was a resident of Wolf's district.
In 2006, CAIR called on Muslims and other people of conscience in Northern Virginia to contact Wolf to urge him to repudiate anti- Muslim remarks by his colleague Representative Virgil Goode (R-VA). Goode was critical of the planned use of a Quran for the ceremonial swearing-in of Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress.
CAIR is America's largest Islamic civil liberties and advocacy group with 35 offices and chapters nationwide and in Canada. In 2007, the prosecutors of the Holy Land Foundation charity used McCarthyite tactics by naming 306 individuals and organisations, including CAIR, as unindicted co-conspirators in the case.
Implicating mainstream Muslim groups was an apparent attempt to silence genuine Muslim voices while providing ammunition to anti- Muslim organisations. It was a US Department of Justice effort to smear the entire Muslim community.
The government's co-conspirator list includes the nation's largest Muslim educational organisation, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT), the country's largest holding company of deeds to about 300 mosques, Islamic centres and schools in the US.
GUILT BY ASSOCIATION: Typically, prosecutors identify a person or a group as an unindicted co-conspirator so that their statements, or those of people involved in the listed organisations, about the defendants could be used in court without them being considered hearsay, which is not permitted in trial. Those so designated cannot challenge the designation in a court of law and thus have no way to restore their reputation to its earlier standing. This proved a unique situation where any person or organisation could be designated guilty by association and stigmatised as such without opportunity of legal redress.
There is no doubt that the Department of Justice in selecting that list of 306 organisations and individuals intended to accomplish such results, especially for three of the largest and most effective American Muslim organisations: ISNA, NAIT and CAIR. Yet Department of Justice guidelines discourage the public identification of unindicted co-conspirators by the government.
"In all public filings and proceedings, federal prosecutors should remain sensitive to the privacy and reputation interests of uncharged third-parties," the Department of Justice manual for prosecutors says. When co-conspirator lists have to be filed in court, prosecutors should seek to file them under seal, the guidelines say.
In practice, lists are often made public. A list of co-conspirators was released in connection with the federal trial in 2005 of Professor Sami Al-Arian on terrorism support charges. However, when Enron executives went on trial in 2006, the list of alleged co-conspirators was kept under seal.
After a series of legal twists, the use of secret evidence and questionable witness testimony by Israeli intelligence agents, the Holy Land Foundation, once a leading American Muslim charitable organisation, and five of its former officials were convicted on 24 November 2008 on criminal charges related to humanitarian aid given to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. The defendants said they were engaged in legitimate relief work, while the government claimed that the work benefited terrorists.
During the trial, defence attorneys accused the government of bending to Israeli pressure to prosecute the charity, and of relying on old evidence. But jurors agreed with the government's contention that at least $12 million raised in the US had been illegally funnelled to Hamas after that organisation was banned as a terrorist group by the federal government in 1995.
Prosecutors spent more time in the second trial explaining the complexities of the case and painting a clearer picture of the money trail. Following the initial mistrial, declared on 22 October 2007 when jurors returned no convictions against any of the five former leaders of the Holy Land Foundation, prosecutors streamlined their case and eliminated almost 100 charges against the remaining defendants. Mohamed El-Mezain, the charity's original chairman, had been unanimously acquitted on most counts by a jury after 19 days of deliberations.
Tellingly, while prosecutors said the charity had raised money for Hamas they did not accuse it of directly financing or being involved in "terrorist" activity. Prosecutors said the charity was spreading Hamas's ideology by funding schools, hospitals and social welfare programmes controlled by the group in the Palestinian territories, and permitting it to divert funds to the activities of fighters.
Attorney Greg Westfall, who has been involved in the case since 2005 called the prosecution shameful and compared the 42-day trial to some of the darkest days in American history. In pandering to racial and religious prejudices, Westfall said, the prosecution depended on people accepting the stereotype that "Muslim equals Islamist equals terrorist." It was based mainly on guilt by association, he said, including associations with groups that have never been proven to be "terrorists" or supporters of terrorism.
According to Nancy Hollander, a lawyer from Albuquerque who represented one of the defendants, Shukri Abu Baker: "Our clients were not even allowed to review their own statements because they were classified statements that they made over the course of many years that the government wiretapped." There were also statements from alleged co-conspirators that included handwritten notes. Nobody knew who wrote the notes, or when they were written.
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley has called the Holy Land case an "example of excessive and vexatious prosecution". The intention was to chill Muslim charities in the US, and that is exactly what happened, he said.
FIGHTING BACK: On 16 August 2007, CAIR filed an amicus brief asking the court to remove its name, and that of several hundred other Muslim individuals and institutions, from the list of so-called unindicted co-conspirators. The CAIR brief in part said:
"The Fifth Amendment was violated because the public naming of the unindicted co- conspirators damaged their reputation, good name, and economic well-being, without offering a forum for vindication, and without a legitimate governmental reason for doing so. The First Amendment was violated because the governmental action of publicly naming the unindicted co-conspirators chilled the expressive associational activities of the unindicted co- conspirators and the government does not have a substantially related compelling interest for their action."
In June 2008 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a motion seeking to remove the names of two Illinois Islamic Charities -- ISNA in Plainfield, Illinois, and NAIT in Burr Ridge, Illinois -- from the list of unindicted co- conspirators. "By publicly branding these groups as criminals without providing a forum for them to defend themselves or clear their names, the government has acted with blatant disregard for their constitutional rights," said Hina Shamsi, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project.
"The government's action is especially shameful because the charge it makes is so inflammatory -- it has caused each organization's reputation and good name to be dragged through the mud. The government has a constitutional obligation to correct the record and clear the names of ISNA and NAIT."
Ingrid Mattson, president of ISNA, is right when she says that for many people, when they hear the designation "unindicted co-conspirator" what they really hear is just "conspirator: and this makes it very difficult for ISNA to continue to have relationships that are built on trust. Additionally, the government action has put a strain on the fund-raising efforts of Muslim groups. At the same time, the legal case is draining their resources, as they have to spend money for their legal defence.
It will not be too much to say that the American Muslim community faces a COINTELPRO operation similar to the 1960s operation against African Americans. COINTELPRO is the acronym for a series of FBI counterintelligence programmes designed to neutralise political dissidents in the 1960s and 1970s. The programme was directed against the civil rights movement, especially against the community leadership of African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. In the 1980s, a similar programme was used against Central American solidarity groups.
According to attorney Brian Glick, author of War at Home, four methods were employed by the FBI at the height of the COINTELPRO operation during 1960s and the same methods are being employed now, including: infiltration in the community; psychological warfare from outside; harassment through the legal system; extra legal force and violence.
The Los Angeles Times (24 February 2009) revelation that the FBI used paid informants in mosques to spy on the community was a shock. The case of Ahmadullah Niazi in Tustin, California, was illustrative.
The FBI sent a convicted criminal, Craig Monteilh, to pose as an agent provocateur in several of California's mosques. In 2007, Niazi reported suspicious behaviour by a new Muslim convert in his mosque, who he said was talking about jihad and suggested planning a terrorist attack in conversations with others at the Islamic Centre of Irvine. He and a mosque official filed a report with the Los Angeles field office of the FBI. The FBI then told mosque officials that they were investigating the matter, and the mosque successfully got a three-year restraining order against the individual. Niazi reported that FBI officials later contacted him to ask him to be a paid informant. When he refused, he said they threatened to make his life "a living hell". Niazi was arrested in February 2009 on charges related to lying on his immigration documents and was later released on $500,000 bail.
STATE OF FEAR: Niazi's case is just one example of FBI infiltration into the Muslim community. At the same time a psychological warfare rages, through headline grabbing high profile arrests and trials. There is harassment through the legal system, with trial of Muslim charities in the name of fighting terrorism. The use of extralegal force is draining the resources of the community in prolonged trials in which most of the evidence is secret and the defendants are unable to properly defend themselves. Trials of the Holy Land Foundation and Al-Arian are just two examples.
All this is bringing the desired result: the intimidation of the Muslim community, defaming their faith (which is claimed linked to acts of terrorism), and straining its financial resources as the community pays out million of dollars in defence expenses.
In the final analysis, there cannot be two opinions on the priority of the security and safety of the nation, but one wonders if such measures as including more than 300 Muslim individuals and organisations as "unindicted co-conspirators" made the nation more safe or if they are being used to maintain a state of fear among the masses and to usurp their civil rights in the name of national security.
* The writer is executive editor of the online magazine American Muslim Perspective (www.amperspective.com).
'There is harassment through the legal system, with trial of Muslim charities in the name of fighting terrorism. The use of extralegal force is draining the resources of the community in prolonged trials in which most of the evidence is secret and the defendants are unable to properly defend themselves'