NEW YORK - A leading US civil liberties group blasted the Federal Bureau of Investigation over reports that it has spied on Muslim community groups during interfaith meetings with their representatives under the cover of outreach and building trust with the religious minority.
"The FBI has been illegally using its community outreach programs to secretly collect and store information about activities... for intelligence purposes," the American Civil Liberties Union said in a report issued on Thursday, December 1, and cited by Agence France Presse (AFP).
The ACLU report said that the FBI overstepped its authority and was violating the trust of groups that agreed to meet law enforcement officers.
At such interfaith meeting the FBI, in some cases between 2007 and 2009, ran background checks on people its agents encountered at Muslim-related events.
The officers also recorded personal information such as e-mail addresses, phone numbers, physical descriptions and opinions in reports marked "routine."
They also compiled notes on opinions, associations and contact details of participants at Ramadan dinners held in 2007 and 2008 during a San Francisco mosque outreach program.
The FBI denied wrongdoing, saying information gathered by outreach teams was not used for operational matters.
"Established policy requires that an appropriate separation be maintained between outreach and operational activities and includes several provisions to ensure this is the case," the FBI said in a statement.
In its statement, the FBI added the "primary purpose" of outreach programs was "to enhance public trust in the FBI in order to enlist the cooperation of the public to fight criminal activity."
The report was based on government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
A similar report was issued last October by ACLU called Mapping the FBI,'' in which it used internal bureau documents made public under Freedom of Information to show that the FBI was associating criminal acts with racial and ethnic groups.
Using interfaith sessions to spy on Muslims only backfired on FBI who lost the trust of the Muslim community.
"The trust that community outreach efforts aim to create is undermined when the FBI exploits these programs to gather intelligence on the very members of the religious and community organizations agents are meeting with," Michael German, a former FBI agent who works with the ACLU.
"The FBI should be honest with community organizations about what information is being collected during meetings and purge any improperly collected information."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) expressed concern about the "chilling effect" on constitutionally-protected activities that may result FBI spying during outreach efforts to secretly gather intelligence on American Muslim communities, groups and individuals.
"FBI outreach initiatives will inevitably have a counterproductive chilling effect on constitutionally-protected activities if they are merely a cover for illegal intelligence gathering," said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad.
"American Muslims should feel free to focus on positive civic engagement without worrying that they will be viewed solely through the prism of national security."
The bureau's tactics have long been controversial, and civil liberties groups have accused agents of overreacting to the 9/11 attacks.
Last September, reports said that FBI agents are being trained that mainstream Muslims are terrorist sympathizers, who turn into violent people once they become pious.
The controversial FBI chart cited by the Danger Room magazine also said that Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) is a cult leader, whose mindset is a source for terrorism.
Since 9/11, Muslims, estimated between six to seven million, have become sensitized to an erosion of their civil rights, with a prevailing belief that America was stigmatizing their faith.
US Muslims are particularly wary of the FBI's history of targeting members of their community.
In 2009, Muslim groups threatened to suspend all contacts with the FBI over sending informants into mosques.