The FBI gathered intelligence on Bay Area mosques during visits that the agency had advertised as friendly community outreach meetings, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Federal agents took notes on the Muslim leaders and congregants they met at mosques across the Bay Area, then filed secret reports about the visits and labeled them as "positive intelligence," the documents show.
"On their face, the FBI has used outreach meetings with mosques to gather intelligence about congregants, religious leaders as well as religious organizations themselves," ACLU attorney Nusrat Choudhury told this newspaper Tuesday.
In a news release she said the FBI "wrongly and unfairly cast a cloud of suspicion" over innocent Muslims and "placed them at risk of greater law enforcement scrutiny" by passing the information collected to other agencies.
Collecting intelligence under the guise of community outreach undermines the trust of Bay Area Muslims, said Zahra Billoo, a spokeswoman for the regional chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Muslims "should feel free to attend houses of worship without fear that their name will end up in an FBI file simply for wanting to pray," she said.
The ACLU and partnering organizations have obtained thousands of FBI documents through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, including previously classified reports that document mosque visits in Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Antioch and other Bay Area cities from 2004 to 2008.
Some of the information agents collected was innocuous. "The FBI sampled some of the fruit," the agents wrote of one visit to a Seaside mosque in which congregants offered them date fruits. "The FBI handed out FBI pens," agents wrote of another visit.
But agents also looked up personal details about some of the people they interacted with using their cellphone numbers. And they reported on a sermon topic and wrote about the history of the Muslim groups and sects to which the mosques belonged, raising constitutional concerns about religious freedom, Choudhury said.
The FBI was not immediately available for comment Tuesday afternoon, but in a statement to Reuters it defended its actions and said its approach to such outreach visits has changed.
"Since that time, the FBI has formalized its community relations program to emphasize a greater distinction between outreach and operational activities," FBI Assistant Director Michael Kortan said in the statement to Reuters.