The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington announced today that it is offering free legal representation to anyone in the state who is approached by the FBI during its latest round of "dragnet" interviews of Arabs and Muslims.
"This dragnet technique used by the FBI is simply ethnic profiling and violates America’s sense of fairness," said ACLU of Washington Executive Director Kathleen Taylor. "Casting blanket suspicion on an entire religious and ethnic community is not a productive means of protecting national security or civil liberties."
The ACLU mobilization came in response to a recent announcement by Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller that the FBI would launch a new round of dragnet-like interviews in Arab and Muslim communities nationwide. This latest effort appears to be a resurrection of a similar program attempted in 2001 and 2002, in which the FBI questioned more than 8,000 Muslim and Arab men. The questioning did not yield a single arrest of a suspected terrorist.
"These types of FBI tactics are counterproductive. They produce fear and resentment, not results," said Julya Hampton, ACLU of Washington Legal Program Director. "Treating innocent people like criminals is certain to drive a wedge between law enforcement and the communities that agencies should be reaching out to."
According to reports from ACLU attorneys in other states who have accompanied members of the community to such interviews, the line of questioning includes inquiries about religious practices and family members, and agents can become coercive. In at least one instance, agents threatened to interfere with the marriage plans of a Muslim man if he did not agree to become an informant on his friends and neighbors. In his interview, FBI agents suggested that if he did not cooperate he could experience "a lot of difficulty" with his plans to marry.
Another example of the way in which the government continues to treat Arabs and Muslims as suspects came to light last week, when news reports revealed that the U.S. Census Bureau, at the request of the Department of Homeland Security, provided detailed statistical data about the distribution of Arab-Americans in the United States. DHS officials claimed that they needed this data for "identifying which language of signage, based upon U.S. ethnic population, would be best to post at the major international airports."
In a letter sent to Charles Kincannon, the Director of the Census Bureau, the ACLU condemned the release of the data, noting that although it was not barred by law, the decision to release the information "violates the spirit of trust held by millions of Americans that the information they furnish on the Census will not be used against them by law enforcement agencies." The letter is available online at https://www.aclu.org/issues/national-security/privacy-and-surveillance/ideological-exclusion.
The ACLU has urged Congress to curb racial profiling through adoption of End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA), federal legislation that defines racial profiling, makes it illegal, and would require data collection on all law enforcement encounters. This legislation is critical in preventing abuse of Muslims in particular, the ACLU said, because the Department of Justice’s guidelines on the use of racial profiling in law enforcement allows an exception for such questioning for "national security" reasons.
The ACLU has also updated its "Know Your Rights" pamphlets, which are now available in Hindi, Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi, Farsi, Somali, English and Spanish. The English-language version is online at https://www.aclu.org/files/kyr/kyr_english.pdf. Others will be available soon.