By Richard B. Muhammad, Ashahed M. Muhammad and Askia Muhammad -Final Call Staffers-
Federal surveillance operation on leading Black movement part of a disturbing trend
CHICAGO – Revelations that the Department of Homeland Security gathered, held and distributed intelligence information on the Nation of Islam drew condemnation from analysts and civil liberties advocates and left two Black congressmen expressing concern about whether the operation was proper.
A lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union uncovered the targeting of the Nation of Islam as the advocacy groups sought information on the extent of some domestic intelligence operations.
News of the intelligence activity was carried Dec. 16 by newspapers, websites, television and radio, with such programs as the nationally syndicated Warren Ballentine Show and its host objecting to the activity.
While newspaper reports said Homeland Security improperly gathered information in 2007, as part of its speculation about who might succeed the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan as leader of the Nation of Islam, a review of the documents released shows federal officials admitted holding the report beyond a specific time period and saw that as a violation. One official, however, defended the surveillance as part of the job of his division.
The agency admitted that on October 12, 2007, the Department of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) released a document titled “Nation of Islam: Uncertain Leadership Succession Poses Risk.” The document was disseminated via email to approximately 482 addresses, according to the agency.
Included in that email listing were Homeland Security staff, representatives of federal departments and agencies, members of the intelligence community, educational institutions, law enforcement officials and congressional staff members, the agency said.
In a report to Homer Pointer, general counsel for the Intelligence Oversight Board, I&A officers said there was “immediate” concern after the information was sent out.
“Immediately after distribution of the intelligence report, both the Associate General Counsel for I&A and I&A’s Intelligence Oversight Officer expressed concerns about the content and dissemination of the intelligence note,” the official went on to write. “In response to these concerns, I&A recalled the intelligence note a few hours after the initial email distribution and requested that recipients delete and destroy their copies of the intelligence note.”
Legal experts, say there is no way of actually knowing whether the recipients of the intelligence information truly destroyed the info, or if anyone still has the documents in their possession.
Report ‘not comforting’ to free speech advocates
Attorney Nathan Cardozo, a legal fellow for the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed the first FOIA related to this case in February 2008. One of the lead attorneys on this suit, Atty. Cardozo said initially he didn’t know what they would find, but what did turn up surprised him and his fellow lawyers.
“This particular request we made was not directed at finding any specific documents, and we certainly weren’t expecting to find the stuff that we did,” said Atty. Cardozo. “Obviously, all sorts of interesting stuff has fallen out,” he said adding that the language and reported information was “not comforting” to free speech and human rights advocates.
“We had no clue that the Nation of Islam was going to be mentioned or had been targeted,” Atty. Cardozo said. The actual report on the Nation was not made public.
According to news reports, information was gathered from “open sources” beginning “around” February 2007, with agency officials violating protocols by taking longer than 180 days to determine whether the group and those being spied upon constituted an “intelligence nexus” requiring further investigation. The actual documents made public are available on the Electronic Frontier Foundation website, http://www.eff.org/.
Throwback to 1960s era dirty tricks?
Ron Daniels, president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century, called the investigation reminiscent of Cointelpro. It’s suspicious and those are civil liberties violations using the Patriot Acts and Homeland Security, he said. We have to be very vigilant when looking at domestic surveillance and investigations, said the longtime educator and activist.
Cointelpro was an F.B.I.-led civil rights and Black Power era undercover program used to disrupt, discredit and destroy Black leaders and organizations. Its nefarious work included pitting groups against one another, infiltrating groups and often trying to entice members into illegal acts or acts with weapons and putting comrades in the justice struggle against one another. Its stated aim was to prevent the rise of a Black messiah that could unite the groups and bring youth into social and political activism.
Dr. Daniels also condemned the operations as religious profiling of the Nation of Islam given its broad range of contacts and engagement with Muslim leaders, the Muslim world and others internationally.
Unfortunately in the eyes of the intelligence agencies these relationships were a concern, he said.
Muslim groups or organizations should not be targeted because of their religion, which is a violation of constitutional protections, Dr. Daniels said. No group should be subjected to a day of surveillance without a legitimate reason, he said.
Questions of succession are not grounds for investigation, he added. “What about the NAACP? Rainbow PUSH? Who is going to succeed Jesse? Who is going to succeed Sharpton?” asked Dr. Daniels.
Dissident views are also not reasons to spy on a group, he stressed. The Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments of the Constitution, were crafted to protect the right to speak things that government might object to, Dr. Daniels continued. The right to speak out, freely assemble, and be free from unreasonable searches are cardinal rights, he said.
There have always been those who have bristled against those rights and targeted the Black community fearful that mistreatment and deprivation by White society would produce fertile ground for anti-government plots, he said. Those fears have been unfounded and Blacks are patriotic, but have shown patriotism by challenging America to live up to her ideals, Dr. Daniels said.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover targeted 20th century Pan Africanist leader Marcus Garvey and later went after the Black Panther Party and others not seen as inflammatory, he noted.
Broad-brush surveillance is also counterproductive and Muslim groups in America have complained about infiltration and the use of government agents and agent provocateurs with the express purpose of identifying terrorists and provoking things, said Dr. Daniels.
Questions need to be raised about what grounds were used to justify such investigations, especially by people of African descent given the strong belief in the legacy and work of the Nation of Islam, he added.
“Blacks and progressives are reacting to the fact that the Obama administration, contrary to campaign promises, certainly has been carrying out some of the same Bush policies on secrecy and unwillingness to open up the books on who was peeking at whom,” he said.
People have to be vigilant and communicate to the Obama administration that they will not stand by and allow this type of activity, he said.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus were cautious, saying there is a proper role for law enforcement agencies, but promised to work to correct the errant practices of Homeland Security that were exposed.
“This is yet another example of how our country’s government must strive tirelessly to strike the balance of protecting us from harm while, just as importantly, protecting our civil rights and civil liberties,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) said in a statement in response to a request from The Final Call.
“Failing to do either compromises the integrity and effectiveness of law enforcement and national security.With this in mind, I expect the Department of Homeland Security to immediately rectify the gaps that have been identified in recent media accounts and I will be working with them to insure that this is the case,” Mr. Conyers said.
“As a former law enforcement professional, it is unfortunate that the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have deepened the relationship gap by fostering mistrust and suspicion,” Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) said in a statement in response to The Final Call.“This practice is unacceptable to any religious organization, including the Muslim faith.Instead of knocking down bridges, they should be focused on building them by strengthening relationships and making our communities safer and better.”
Law enforcement agencies should never engage in irresponsible, extra-judicial surveillance of law-abiding citizens or groups without any probable cause, according to one authority on civil liberties.
“The question here is–which is not clear from the published reports that we’ve seen–is whether there was a reasonable basis for conducting an investigation, if you will. And that investigation apparently included some form of spying,” Michael MacLeod-Ball, acting executive director of the ACLU Washington Legislative office told The Final Call.
“We’ve seen other instances–in Maryland for example–where the Maryland State Police were spying on peace groups in recent years, without appropriate basis. So we know this stuff goes on, but it’s not supposed to go on.”
The fact this improper investigation discovered no criminal or otherwise suspicious behavior inside the Nation of Islam, more closely resembles FBI Cointelpro than it does anything like proper law enforcement. “You’re exactly right,” Mr. MacLeod-Ball said. “That’s why it’s important to have guidelines in place that put strict standards on law enforcement authorities for what they can and cannot do in these kinds of situations.
“The other disturbing thing about this is that the basis for the investigation, or the spying if you will, seems to be based upon the ideology of the group that was being surveilled. That seems to us to be just, flat-out wrong.
“Law enforcement can certainly be concerned about organizations that may wish to do violence, to commit illegal acts, whether violent or not. Their role is to investigate those kinds of circumstances. But where their knee-jerk reaction is simply to investigate based upon ideology, they’re setting themselves up to miss important information that could actually help them stop other violent situations that they are missing, simply because they’re paying attention to ideology, and not propensity to violence,” he said.
The Homeland Security officials admitted in the nearly 80 year history of the Nation there is no record of violence, calling for violent overthrow of the government, or carrying of weapons–which is forbidden in the Nation of Islam.
“I think it’s totally outrageous for the Dept. of Homeland Security to once again move against a Muslim group,” said Hodari Abdul- Ali, chair of the Social Justice Task Force for the Muslim Alliance in North America.
Mr. Abdul-Ali said instead of investigating Black Americans who are followers of Islam, the government should be praising them.
“They should be thanking the African-American population for accepting Islam because it has turned out to be the most law abiding, peaceful, upright segment of our community. The record speaks for itself,” Mr. Abdul-Ali said.
Atty. Cardozo called the release of these documents “a good first step” in living up to President Barack Obama’s promise for more openness and transparency in government. However, the group found it “extremely disappointing” that the Obama administration supports renewal of the most troubling provisions contained within the U.S.A. Patriot Act.
In addition to the reports received on Dec. 16 from lawyers from the Department of Justice on behalf of Homeland Security, a judge ordered the delivery of more documents from other federal agencies.
According to Atty. Cardozo, his group is to receive reports from the Office of the Attorney General in January 2010, and reports from the Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Director of National Intelligence in February. It is unclear what type of information will be included in those additional files, or the extent to which the Nation of Islam will be mentioned, if at all.
While many are led to believe this increased surveillance began after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the history of intelligence gathering and surveillance of the Nation of Islam goes all the way back to the early-40s with the arrest and subsequent jailing of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad in 1942 due to a Presidential Executive Order for alleged draft evasion, even though he was older than the draft age.
To justify their now disclosed actions, Homeland Security invoked the events of 9/11 and said the ability to compose “analytical pieces” dealing with “potential threats” falls within their operational parameters.
“Good analysts are always alert to the possibility of what I call ‘abrupt discontinuity’ in order to warn of new threats,” wrote Charles Allen, Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis. “We know the failure to discern the ‘abrupt discontinuity’ has always been the Achilles heel of the Intelligence Community. … Nonetheless, I agree that the intelligence note on the Nation of Islam should not have been issued. The organization, despite its highly volatile and extreme rhetoric, has neither advocated violence nor engaged in violence,” he concluded.
Nation has long stood against terrorism
Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001 the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan has issued numerous public statements on the Nation of Islam’s position against terrorism. As recently in his October 18, 2009 Holy Day of Atonement keynote address in Memphis, Tennessee, Minister Farrakhan condemned terrorist acts that take the lives of innocent human beings wherever they occur in the world.
He has also publicly stated on numerous occasions that if the Nation of Islam knew of anyone who was planning a terrorist act the Nation would try to stop it.
Minister Farrakhan has consistently defended the Nation of Islam against false accusations in the media that the group is un-American and espouses violence.
Minister Farrakhan condemned the acts which occurred on September 11, 2001 at a press conference held at the Nation of Islam’s headquarters in Chicago shortly after the tragedy.
“Words are inadequate to express the pain, the sadness, the anguish that has moved my spirit to come before you today to speak from my heart to your hearts, and beyond this room to the hearts of a nation grieved, angry, and in mourning,” Min. Farrakhan said on Sept. 16, 2001. “I, on behalf of all the members of the Nation of Islam and on behalf of many millions of Muslims here in America and throughout the world, lift our voices to condemn this vicious and atrocious attack on the United States,” he added.
Focus on the Nation’s future direction?
Historically, intelligence gathering agencies have consistently sought to control and/or predict the ideological direction of Black organizations, including the Nation of Islam.
Speculation regarding the future of the Nation of Islam without Minister Farrakhan at the helm is directly similar to the J. Edgar Hoover Cointelpro document dated January 7, 1969 regarding the Nation of Islam. It reads in part:
“In this connection Chicago should consider what counterintelligence action might be needed now or at the time of Elijah Muhammad’s death to bring about such a change in NOI philosophy. Important considerations should include the identity, strengths, and weaknesses, of any contenders for NOI leadership. What are the positions of our [BUREAU DELETION] informants in regard to leadership? How could potential leaders be turned or neutralized?
“The alternative to changing the philosophy of the NOI is the destruction of the organization. This might be accomplished through generating factionalism among the contenders for Elijah Muhammad’s leadership or through legal action in probate court on his death. Chicago should consider the question of how to generate the factionalism necessary to destroy the NOI by splitting into several groups. [BUREAU DELETION]”
Forty years later, again dealing with the question of succession, Homeland Security apparently felt sentiments similar to those contained in Cointelpro memos and papers. The released documents said the report “discussed the possible succession of leadership of NOI and the direction the group may take depending on who becomes the new leader, their personal philosophy, and their ability to keep the organization from further splintering.”
Dawud Walid, director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), said a “neo-COINTELPRO” is underway in the United States in which some government policymakers and opinion shapers have a vested interest in painting Muslims as “Public Enemy Number One.”
“The language is so similar that it leads one to believe that they either went back to their old playbook, or they never abandoned the playbook at all,” said Mr. Walid.
He would not be surprised to find every major Muslim organization and large mosque across the U.S. had “agent provocateurs and informants spying or trying to cause disruption of organizational activities.”
“I think their tactic is to keep us on the defensive and I think our best response is just to be firm, and be who we are, and to quit apologizing for things that we didn’t do,” said Mr. Abdul-Ali. “Whether it is (J. Edgar) Hoover or Homeland Security or whatever they decide to call it next year, their whole purpose is to try to suppress any semblance of Black unity, any semblance of Black empowerment and we have to resist this however we can,” he said.
(For more information regarding Cointelpro, visit noi.org/cointelpro.)