Lawsuit challenges Suspicious Activity Reporting’s surveillance, racial and religious profiling of innocent Americans

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July 10, 2014

By Nasrina Bargzie and Yaman Salahi, National Security & Civil Rights Staff Attorneys

Press Conference for filing of Gill v. DOJ

Today, Advancing Justice-ALC filed a federal lawsuit, Gill v. Department of Justice, to challenge a domestic surveillance program called Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) with the ACLU and Bingham McCutchen LLP. The SAR program turns local police departments and even private citizens into the “eyes and ears” of the federal government by encouraging them to report supposedly “suspicious” activities to local fusion centers, which investigate the reports and determine whether to share them with law enforcement agencies around the country.

We have long maintained that the SAR program’s overbroad standards lead to the investigation of constitutionally protected conduct and expression, and may result in innocent people being placed in criminal intelligence databases. With guidelines that describe innocuous activities as suspicious, racial and religious profiling are bound to result. This prediction was borne out by over 1700 SAR reports from California fusion centers that we previously released with the ACLU, and which also reveal a disturbing pattern of Islamophobia.

And it’s also borne out in the story of three of the five plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit we filed today. On the basis of totally innocuous activities—plus being Muslim or looking Middle Eastern—these three young men were investigated and their names placed in federal criminal intelligence databases as having a potential nexus to terrorism, even when they did nothing wrong.

Tariq Razak is a young American college graduate of Pakistani descent. In 2011, he went to the Santa Ana Train Depot for an appointment with the county employment resource center. It was his first time there, so, naturally, he spent time looking for the office before he went to the bathrooms to meet his mother, who wears a headscarf. But a private security officer trained on “Suspicious Activity Reporting” saw this innocent activity very differently. To the security officer, Razak “appeared to be observant of his surroundings and was constantly surveying all areas of the facility” before he went to the restrooms and met “a female wearing a white burka head dress.” The officer then followed Razak to his car and took note of his license plate, and filed a report that ended up in the hands of the local fusion center for analysis as possibly connected to terrorism.

Wiley Gill is also a young U.S. citizen who converted to Islam and enjoys playing video games. But a local police officer observed him spending time at the mosque and walking around town with Muslim “elders,” and then pressured his way into Gill’s home. Later, the police officer reported Gill to the local fusion center as a potential terrorist. Why? Gill was “suspicious” because of his “full conversion to Islam as a young WMA [white, male adult]” with “pious demeanor” and “potential access to flight simulators via the internet.”

Khaled Ibrahim, yet another young Muslim-American man, was at a Best Buy in Dublin, California trying to buy computers in his role as a purchasing manager for a computer company. The store wouldn’t sell them, so he left. But someone reported the attempted purchase of “a large amount of computers” to the local fusion center, potentially because of his Middle Eastern descent, and a terrorism analyst there concluded that Ibrahim’s attempted computer purchase could have a nexus to terrorism, so the report was uploaded to a federal criminal intelligence database.

As these examples demonstrate, SARs and other reports that result from biased profiling or innocuous conduct yield little information of use in law enforcement efforts, and all Americans’, especially Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian communities’, trust in law enforcement.

Such racial and religious profiling is an affront to our communities—and it needs to be stopped. No one should be investigated, let alone placed in a counter-terrorism database, unless there’s a credible reason to think they are engaged in criminal conduct, a principle the SAR program fails to respect. By reining in the SAR program and the fusion centers that administer it through this lawsuit, we can start the process of restoring the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans, and stopping unjustified surveillance of our communities.

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