Alarmed by a report that the mosques in Los Angeles and San Diego are under surveillance, civil rights groups have called for congressional hearings. The call for public hearings followed a San Diego newspaper report that a group of military reservists and law enforcement officers at Camp Pendleton Marine base stole the data from a federal surveillance program that monitored mosques in Southern California.
The Union-Tribune of San Diego reported last week that Col. Larry Richards, a Marine reservist, and his accomplices had no trouble evading the security measures of the Strategic Technical Operations Center at Camp Pendleton. Richards, who was the center's chief, also worked as a top specialist for the Los Angeles County Terrorist Early Warning Group. In January 2004, he escorted two Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies through the Strategic Technical Operations Center’s vault like doors and to the man stealing classified files for them.
The paper said that Richards recruited Gunnery Sgt. Gary Maziarz, an intelligence analyst at the center to raid the database. Maziarz was the linchpin of the theft group until his arrest in late 2006. He pleaded guilty the next summer and named Richards as the ringleader.
The California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, and the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California sent a joint letter to the Congressional Committees on the Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform expressing concerns over the possible civil rights violations posed by the alleged monitoring of U.S. citizens on the basis of religious affiliation.
The letter stated in part: “Holding the entire American Muslim community suspect not only threatens civil liberties and raises the specter of unconstitutional religious profiling, but undermines public safety by eroding that community’s trust in law enforcement. The San Diego breach revealed not only flawed security, but unchecked surveillance and monitoring programs that must be subjected to Congressional oversight.”
Samina Faheem Sundas, Executive Director of the American Muslim Voice, while supporting the call for a congressional hearing said that “this confirms our fears that mosques and Muslim community organizations are target of government surveillance that only encourages further unwarranted suspicion of the American Muslim community.”
The San Diego Union-Tribune first wrote about the theft ring in October 2007 after obtaining much of the transcript from Maziarz's court-martial. The newspaper has since received more transcripts, reports from the FBI and naval authorities, and details from people close to the case.
The newly acquired material indicates that Maziarz and other suspects gave investigators self-incriminating evidence. It suggests that a massive number of files were taken from Camp Pendleton, including those with the most confidential classification the government can bestow – Top Secret, Special Compartmentalized Information.
In Maziarz's apartment in Carlsbad and a storage locker in Virginia, investigators found more than 100 FBI and Defense Department files. Some documents pertained to surveillance of Muslim communities in Southern California.
More than a year ago, several organizations, including CAIR-California and the Shura Council, filed a public records request for documents relating to FBI surveillance of their lawful activities.
After the ACLU of Southern California filed a lawsuit last year seeking responses to the requests, the government produced more than 100 pages of documents for some of the plaintiffs. The suit remains in litigation.
In 2006, J. Stephen Tidwell, then-FBI assistant director in Los Angeles, met at the Irvine mosque with about 200 people who questioned him about government monitoring. The meeting was prompted by media reports that the FBI was monitoring Muslim students at UC Irvine and USC. Tidwell denied that monitoring was taking place, telling the audience that "we still play by the rules."
The Los Angeles Times, reporting on the Union-Tribune’s data theft story, said since the 2001 terrorist attacks, members of the Islamic Center of Irvine and other local mosques have complained about FBI agents questioning them about imams' sermons and how often they attend services.
Tellingly, in November last, the LA Police Department drew sharp criticism by the civil right groups to its program of ‘mapping’ (read profiling) Muslims in the Greater Los Angeles where at least 500,000 Muslims reside. The program was shelved amid uproar by the Muslim community. The mosques surveillance date theft confirms fear of the Muslim community that more than six-year after 9/11 it remains victim of guilt by association.