Islamophobia a major force in Suspicious Activity Reporting program

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September 19, 2013

By Yaman Salahi, Staff Attorney, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus

In October 2010, someone reported “suspicious ME [Middle Eastern] males buy[ing] several large pallets of water” in Bakersfield to a federally-funded “fusion center.” Intelligence analysts at the fusion center then uploaded the report into a national information-sharing database called eGuardian, where law enforcement agencies around the country, including, perhaps the next police officer to give you a speeding ticket, might learn about your water habits. 

“Sgt. [redacted] has long been concerned about a residence in his neighborhood occupied by a Middle Eastern male adult physician who is very unfriendly,” says another report. This, too, was assessed by an intelligence analyst in one of California’s six fusion centers and then shared across the country through eGuardian.

Two months later, someone reported “two middle eastern looking males taking photographs of Folsom Dam.” The Folsom Dam, like all dams, is a common subject of photography. Just take a look at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Flickr stream. Yet the report also ended up in a federal intelligence database that, under the current guidelines, is supposed to be limited to activities potentially linked to terrorism.

These are only three of over 1700 Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and released today to coincide with a letter from the ACLU, Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus (ALC), and 25 other civil liberties organizations calling on the Obama administration to reform the SAR program, which encourages local law enforcement and civilians alike to report many innocuous and constitutionally-protected “suspicious activities” to the feds.

The reports raise a very distressing problem, and confirm the worst fears of people in the Bay Area’s Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian communities:   that law enforcement agencies from the local to the federal level believe that being “Middle Eastern” carries with it a cloud of suspicion. A perfectly normal activity   like “being unfriendly” or “buying water”   suddenly becomes a potential indicator of terrorism when paired with “being Middle Eastern.” 

When officers are encouraged to treat common activities, like photography, as potentially suspicious ones, they will rely on their gut feelings. But too often, gut feelings are prejudiced feelings. The Supreme Court’s solution to that problem was to require officers to support their suspicions with articulable factsnot just unexplained feelings, before subjecting someone to investigation. The federal government has yet to abide by a similar standard in the SAR program.

Of course, Middle Eastern-looking people are not the only folks caught up in the SAR program. Many other reports document innocuous activities like people taking photographs of places that beg to be photographed‑landmark buildings, bridges, and dams. In some cases, officers trained under the SAR program have illegally detained or searched peopleand threatened to put them on watch listsBut this sample of reports evinces a clear and disturbing trend suggesting that, although all of us are affected, Islamophobia and prejudice are powerful forces in the federal government’s counter-terrorism programs.

Local police departments often encourage their officers to file these reports and even work at the fusion centers side-by-side with the feds, so communities are left with a diminished sense of trust in local police. Because once you’re reported for a “suspicious activity” like this, you may receive a visit from a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) agent, like many of Advancing Justice – ALC’s clients. It’s possible that these reports have other ramifications, too, like increased surveillance, obstacles traveling, denial of security clearance, or delays when applying for immigration benefits.

In light of recent revelations that secret government surveillance programs reach far beyond our imagination, local police departments and fusion centers need to be more transparent about their activities. San Francisco’s own Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC) should publish its collection of SARs to improve transparency and public understanding – so far, it has refused, even though two other California fusion centers have released some SARs. 

The feds and local police want you to believe that the network of approximately 80 fusion centers around the country, including 6 in California, are watching over us but, as this small glimpse demonstrates, they may simply be watching us.

Related: NPR online – ACLU Posts Fed-Collected ‘Suspicious’ Activity Reports Online
ACLU of Northern California Blog – 
The Government is Spying on You: ACLU Releases New Evidence of Overly Broad Surveillance of Everyday Activities

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