Citing State Secrets Privilege, Judge Partially Dismisses Mosque Spying Lawsuit

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August 25, 2012

On Aug. 15, 2012, a federal district court partially dismissed a lawsuit filed against the U.S. government and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) for using a paid informant to infiltrate California-area mosques and spy on its members. The court accepted the government’s assertion of the state secrets privilege, arguing the disclosure of an unconstitutional domestic spying program might reveal sensitive information. The court, however, permitted claims under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows those who were improperly subjected to electronic surveillance to proceed against individual FBI agents and supervisors. Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they would file an appeal.

The lawsuit had alleged American Muslims had been targeted by the FBI solely for their religious beliefs, and that this conduct adversely affected their community and religious donations.   The suit sought the destruction or return of information the FBI had collected. The February 2011 lawsuit had been filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California and Council on American-Islamic Relations Los Angeles office on behalf of three plaintiffs.
According to the ACLU, “This marked the first time in recent memory that the government has asserted the state secrets privilege to dismiss a lawsuit brought by United States citizens alleging that a domestic law enforcement operation was violating their constitutional rights.”
U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney said in his decision that although he was uncomfortable with the conduct of the government, he found that the interest of security outweighed the interests of the plaintiffs in this case. “The state secrets privilege may unfortunately mean the sacrifice of individual liberties for the sake of national security,” he wrote in his 36 page order.
"We don't believe the Constitution permits (Carney's) conclusion and as a result of the court's decision, hundreds of law-abiding Muslims in Southern California will never learn whether the government violated their most basic civil rights," said Ahilan Arulanantham, an ACLU attorney.