Lawsuit over FBI spying on Muslims should be dismissed, U.S. says
That was the question at the center of a heated argument Tuesday in a Santa Ana courtroom as a federal judge weighs whether to throw out a class-action lawsuit brought by a group of Orange County Muslims, who contend that their constitutional rights were trampled when the FBI sent an undercover informant into their midst to illegally spy on them.
The lawsuit revolves around the actions of Craig Monteilh, who alleges that he posed as a Muslim convert at the behest of the FBI to collect information at Orange County mosques. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations sued on behalf of community members who alleged that the FBI engaged in a “dragnet” investigation that indiscriminately targeted Muslims based on their religion, planted bugs in offices and homes, and listened in on private religious conversations.
The U.S. government has asserted the state secrets privilege in the case, contending that divulging their targets in counterterrorism investigations, as well as how and why, would endanger national security.
Monteilh, a convict who the FBI acknowledges worked as an informant on a case dubbed Operation Flex, has since taken his story public and filed lengthy court papers for the ACLU outlining his FBI work.
“That information could cause harm for years to come,” Department of Justice attorney Anthony Coppolino told U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney on Tuesday.
While acknowledging that asserting the state secrets privilege could be seen as “unfair or harsh,” Coppolino said it was necessary for the greater public good.
ACLU attorney Ahilan Arulanantham argued that the government should not be allowed to “shut the courthouse door” simply by citing national security.
The judge remarked that he found some of the facts alleged in the complaint about the FBI’s investigation “very troubling.” At the same time, he questioned whether it was unavoidable to target people based on their religion “by the nature of the extremism that we have to deal with.”
Carney said he would issue a ruling later Tuesday.
-- Victoria Kim
Photo: Craig Monteilh, who claims to be an FBI informant who infiltrated mosques in Orange County, says these IDs were issued to him while serving time in state prison. Credit: Los Angeles Times