ACLU of Virginia Offers Legal Assistance to People Facing FBI Questioning Under Sweeping Pre-Election Surveillance Initiative

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
October 18, 2004 12:00 am

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“October Plan” Chills Religious and Political Activity of Muslims and Arabs

RICHMOND, VA–The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia announced today that it will provide lawyers to assist persons selected for questioning under a sweeping FBI initiative to aggressively target Muslims and Arabs and surveil Mosque activities leading up to the November 2 election.

“As we understand it, this plan focuses on Muslims and Arabs who are unlikely to have any connection to any criminal activity,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “We want our government to act against legitimate terrorist threats, but casting a net of suspicion over an entire religious and ethnic community is an ineffective and counterproductive investigative tool.”

According to news reports, the FBI project — officially called the “Fall Threat Task Force” but popularly referred to as the “October Plan”– calls for “aggressive surveillance tactics, including visiting mosques and questioning worshippers. Under this nationwide plan, hundreds of Muslims living in Arizona were questioned by FBI agents prior to the presidential debates in Tempe, Arizona, last week. The ACLU fears a repeat of the post-9/11 roundup that resulted in more than 1,000 persons being secretly questioned and detained, but later found to have no connections whatsoever to terrorism.

The ACLU of Virginia is urging individuals who have been approached by the FBI for questioning to contact the organization at (804) 644-8080. The ACLU has also produced “Know Your Rights” brochures in English, Arabic and six other languages as part of its outreach efforts. Brochures are available online at /node/30450.

“We hope to be able to provide assistance to everyone who needs it,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg. “We strongly advise people who are contacted by the FBI to call us. It is important that they know there are limits to what the FBI can do in investigations of this kind, and that they have a right to have a lawyer present if they choose to go through with the interview.”

According to the FBI, participating in the interviews is voluntary. But the ACLU believes that many in the Arab community will feel coerced to take part. In addition, the FBI interviews seem to be geared to collecting information on dissenters as much as actual terrorists. News reports say that individuals are being asked questions such as: “Do you know anyone critical of the domestic war on terrorism?” and “Have you heard any anti-U.S propaganda?”

In a related move, on August 20, 2004, the ACLU of Northern California filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the FBI and local Joint Terrorism Task Forces to seek documents related to the questioning of recent immigrants and U.S. citizens of Arab and Muslim descent, as well as any documents on the surveillance of political and religious activity. Given the immediacy of the questioning programs, the ACLU of Northern California sought expedited processing of the requests. However, in a letter dated September 22, 2004, that request was denied. The ACLU plans to appeal that denial.

For more information on the FOIA requests, go to /node/11726.

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