CALIFORNIA - A US judge has thrown out a lawsuit accusing the FBI of violating civil liberties by sending informants into mosques to spy on Muslim worshippers to avoid divulging sensitive state secrets, to the outcry of right groups.
"It's deeply unfair because now hundreds of law-abiding Muslim citizens will never know whether the government violated their most basic civil rights," attorney Ahilan Arulanantham, from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, told Reuters.
"That's why it's so important that this case be reviewed on appeal because the state secrets privilege is absolute when the government successfully invokes it.
ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a lawsuit accusing the FBI of violating civil liberties by sending informants into several mosques in California.
The lawsuit said the FBI sent a paid undercover informant named Craig Monteilh into mosques in Orange County, California, to spy on Muslim worshippers.
According to the suit, the informant took hundreds of hours of surreptitious video and audio recordings of religious lectures, classes, cultural events and other meetings in 2006 and 2007 as part of a counterterrorism investigation, known as "Operation Flex," that did not produce a single conviction.
But US District Judge Cormac Carney rejected the lawsuit, saying it risks divulging sensitive state secrets.
The judge compared himself to the fictional Greek hero Odysseus, who while sailing home from the Trojan War faced navigating his ship between a six-headed monster on one side and a dangerous whirlpool on the other.
"Odysseus opted to pass by the monster and risk a few of his individual sailors, rather than hazard the loss of his entire ship to the sucking whirlpool," Carney wrote in a 36-page ruling.
"Similarly, the proper application of the state secrets privilege may unfortunately mean the sacrifice of individual liberties for the sake of national security."
But the judge allowed the case to go forward against five current or former FBI agents who the plaintiffs claim violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows those who were improperly subjected to electronic surveillance to sue.
The FBI has acknowledged that Monteilh was used as a confidential informant during the operation but denies engaging in any unconstitutional practices.
Government attorneys said that details about Monteilh's activities remain highly sensitive information.
Civil rights groups have denounced the judge's verdict as unconstitutional.
"That's terribly unfortunate that there's a doctrine in the law that allows courts to throw out cases that allege serious constitutional violations based on secret evidence the judge reviews behind closed doors that never sees the light of day," ACLU attorney Peter Bibring told the Los Angeles Times.
"That shouldn't be in a democratic society."
FBI tactics of sending informants into mosques to spy on worshippers have been a source of tension with US Muslims, estimated at between six and seven million.
In 2009, Muslim groups threatened to suspend all contacts with the FBI over sending informants into mosques.
Last year, the Associated Press revealed that New York Police sent out undercover officers into ethnic communities to track their daily life and monitor mosques and Muslim student organizations.
It also revealed that the police intelligence had established so-called Demographics Unit using plainclothes police officers to monitor ethnic groups in the metropolitan region.The AP also found that the NYPD kept secret files on businesses owned by second- and third-generation Americans specifically because they were Muslims.