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Lawsuit contends FBI violated rights of hundreds of Muslim Americans

February 22, 2011 | 11:48 pm

Craig Monteilh, photographed in 2009,

The FBI violated the 1st Amendment rights of hundreds of Muslims by using a paid informant to target and monitor several Southern California mosques based solely on religion, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Filed on behalf of three Muslim plaintiffs, the suit accuses the FBI and seven of its employees, including Director Robert Mueller, of paying Irvine resident Craig Monteilh to go undercover, infiltrate mosques and record conversations in order to root out potential terrorists.

Over the course of 14 months beginning in 2006, the FBI used Monteilh to “indiscriminately collect” personal information on hundreds or even thousands of Muslim Americans, the lawsuit alleges.

Through this “dragnet” operation, the agency “gathered hundreds of phone numbers, thousands of e-mail addresses, hundreds of hours of video recordings that captured the interiors of mosques, homes and businesses, and ... thousands of hours of audio recordings,” the lawsuit alleges.

Monteilh, who has served prison time for forgery, has previously told The Times that he was recruited by the FBI in 2004 to infiltrate drug-trafficking groups. In 2006, Monteilh said, he was asked to assume the identity of a Muslim convert and go undercover to identify extremists and gather intelligence.

The lawsuit comes a year after Monteilh filed suit personally against the FBI, accusing his law enforcement handlers of endangering his life and violating his civil rights. His claims of working for the FBI in some capacity were confirmed in 2009 when a West Covina judge unsealed court records that showed the agency intervened in 2007 to terminate Monteilh's parole on a theft charge early.

The FBI declined to comment on the case Tuesday night, citing ongoing legal proceedings. Spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said in an e-mail, however, that the FBI does not target houses of worship or religious groups but does focus on “people who are alleged to be involved in criminal activity, regardless of their affiliations, religious or otherwise.”

ACLU lawyer Peter Bibring said members of the Muslim community grew suspicious after Monteilh habitually asked probing and invasive questions about their religious beliefs, political views, loyalties and became “increasing aggressive about denouncing U.S. foreign policy.”

“Ironically, the operation ended when members of the Muslim communities of Southern California reported the informant to the police because of his violent rhetoric and ultimately obtained a restraining order against him,” the lawsuit alleged.

Bibring dismisses the idea that the FBI may have been targeting individuals already suspected of criminal activity.

“That simply doesn’t fit with the behavior that the entire community observed,” he said. Monteilh “didn’t focus on individuals or small groups of people. He probed a wide range of people.”

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, class-action status and the destruction of all materials that Monteilh collected and handed over to the FBI.

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-- Shan Li

Photo: Dressed in his undercover Islamic clothing, Craig Monteilh, seen here in 2009, was recruited by the FBI to spy on Muslims. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

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