A kinder, gentler surveillance

The FBI meets with the local Muslim community to discuss the government’s pre-election October plan.

Special Agent Keith Slotter and U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott explained that increasing surveillance before the election would not mean an “investigative sweep” of the Muslim community.

Special Agent Keith Slotter and U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott explained that increasing surveillance before the election would not mean an “investigative sweep” of the Muslim community.

Photo By Larry Dalton

In September of this year, news agencies began reporting on what became known as the federal government’s October plan, which consisted of stepped-up surveillance techniques in the weeks leading to the national election on November 2. CBS News quoted from an “internal e-mail advisory” that discussed “aggressive—even obvious—surveillance” and “extraordinary methods” that would be in place throughout October. Whether this news quieted Americans’ fears or warned potential terrorists that law enforcement was watching, it had a decidedly negative effect on members of Sacramento’s local Muslim community.

Feeling harassed since 9/11 by tales of Muslim Americans around the country subjected to multiple interviews, detentions, visits from FBI agents and deportation, some local Muslims have become hyper-aware of how law enforcement views their community. Some fear that religious activities or other customs, including donating to charities that potentially could be linked to terrorist organizations, might identify them as terrorist sympathizers— or worse. This became obvious on October 6, when a meeting quickly was arranged by Special Agent Keith Slotter of the FBI with leaders of the Muslim community. An e-mail sent to Muslim business leaders called this a good time to"meet and discuss the FBI’s current investigative actions, timetable and impact it might have on the Muslim-American community.”

Early in the evening, the meeting room at the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims (SALAM) Center filled with religious leaders, teachers, business owners and attorneys. Previous meetings between the FBI and Muslim leaders had given everyone a chance to discuss concerns, share points of view and build bridges. But, armed with alarming news stories from other parts of the country on similar meetings held with other Muslim communities, audience members appeared nervous.

Rashid Ahmad, president of the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), opened the meeting by introducing two representatives of the federal government, Slotter and U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott, both dressed in dark suits and wearing American flag emblems.

Slotter said he’d called the meeting to explain what was happening, “but maybe even more importantly, what’s not going to happen.” With the election a month away, his office had opened a new command post, he said, staffed to receive and share information with law enforcement agencies. Also, agents would be talking to the owners of businesses, including “businesses that would face particular exposure to attack or be in the position to inadvertently assist in a potential terrorist activity.” And, said Slotter, the agency would be increasing surveillance slightly, especially on cases that were ongoing, which the agents could not speak about in detail.

“After the attacks of 9/11,” Slotter continued, “there was quite an investigative sweep, for lack of a better word, across this country … that is not part of the plan, and that will not be occurring between now and the election.”

Scott bolstered the case for increased activity. The current plan isn’t “just some willy-nilly thing that someone decided to do one day,” he said, adding that “very real, concrete information” captured from Al Qaeda operatives taken into custody in Pakistan this summer led federal agencies to anticipate a “movement afoot by Al Qaeda to attempt to affect or disrupt the United States election next month, just as they disrupted or affected the election in Spain last March.”

Asked for further detail, neither Scott nor Slotter could provide any. They didn’t have access to the specific intelligence, they said.

In spite of the increased threat, Slotter repeatedly mentioned that the Muslim community would probably notice no difference in the day-to-day activity of the FBI in their communities. Both speakers also reiterated that law enforcement was committed to protecting the civil rights of Muslim Americans, who were encouraged to report crimes against them.

Though both men were polite and informal, the community was not satisfied easily. If a special meeting was necessary, reasoned moderator Wazhma Mojaddidi, then Slotter and his associates must be planning more than business as usual.

Muslim business and religious leaders listened, but some questioned whether their political or religious beliefs might make them vulnerable to investigation.

Photo By Larry Dalton

As Ahmad had told the crowd of perhaps 40 people at the very beginning of the meeting, the “FBI is in the business of fighting crime; CAIR is in the business of defending civil rights.” Mojaddidi, an attorney, took that obligation seriously. After Slotter described the meeting as simply an opportunity to “reach out to the Muslim American community,” she quoted from the CBS News report, and from Bay Area media reports, in which law enforcement officials were quoted claiming that they would be questioning Muslim dissidents and visiting mosques.

Slotter assured her that locally, the FBI mostly was interested in making sure that security was tight at targets like military bases and sites of financial or economic interest. Secondarily, they were interested in making sure that transportation companies and others were well-secured.

Slotter reiterated that there would be increased surveillance on a handful of individuals by the local Anti-Terrorism Task Force, the inter-agency investigative collaboration, but there would be no sweeps or detentions.

In separate interviews, Slotter said that so far, no investigation in the Sacramento area had come to any final conclusion, and he confirmed that the agency didn’t really have the resources to perform the multiple, intensive investigations the audience seemed to fear. Locally, said Slotter, the Anti-Terrorism Task Force employs approximately 35 FBI and non-FBI participants.

The discussion, which continued for more than two hours, ranged through a variety of subjects. One audience member explained that it was frightening for him to accompany a friend to an FBI interview in a parking lot. Another audience member criticized the extensive no-fly list for hindering Muslims and others from traveling, Slotter explained that it took more than political dissent or religious practice to convince the FBI to open an investigation on any one person, and Dina El-Nakhal explained that the community would be more trusting if the FBI would acknowledge and apologize when it made mistakes and fingered innocent people. Slotter and Scott sympathized.

Metwalli Amer, a well-respected religious leader and founder of SALAM, asked whether he potentially would be interviewed again, since he already had submitted to an intensive interview by the FBI. Bashir Choudry, owner of a security company, said that because of foreign workers on his staff, he personally had been interviewed three times, though he didn’t particularly mind. He was quick to call the FBI agents “polite” and “honest.”

To diffuse public concerns, Scott and Slotter explained that approximately 90 percent of the interviews conducted locally were voluntary “witness interviews"—for the sake of gathering information, rather than investigating the person interviewed.

When Mojaddidi reminded the audience that everyone has the right not to answer questions, Scott wholeheartedly confirmed that.

Though members of the audience expressed their appreciation for the meeting, some were not particularly comforted. Leaders who’d attended previous meetings with the FBI found that the presentation closely matched one held between the community and Slotter in July, and they were not particularly concerned.

But some members of the community continued to feel vulnerable, not necessarily believing that their religious and political views weren’t reason enough for an investigation; their concerns seemed to focus on the very power of the Joint Terrorism Task Force to quietly question, investigate and potentially detain Muslim Americans.

As Slotter and Scott acknowledged, it can be scary to have the FBI show up at your door unexpectedly. Kais Menoufy, a local-business owner said that some community members are even reluctant to admit that they’ve been contacted by the FBI. Menoufy also said during the meeting that although he liked what he was hearing, he hoped agents would “walk the talk.”

Audience members who asked for the criteria for opening an investigation were told that multiple pieces of evidence would have to convince the agency that someone would be a potential harm to the country. “We have to be able to articulate that there’s some nexus to terrorism,” said Scott. But when one audience member asked very seriously how a person would know they were under surveillance, Slotter took the opportunity to quip, “Hopefully, you don’t.”