Documents obtained by two civil liberties organizations reveal that during the Bush administration the Department of Homeland Security improperly investigated and surveiled American Muslims who had no ties to criminal activity or terrorism. The information collected, however, was destroyed after internal processes uncovered the violations of intelligence oversight guidelines.
In the first incident, uncovered by a Freedom of Information Act request from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, DHS' Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) wrote and distributed "an intelligence note" in September 2007 on the lines of succession at the Nation of Islam, an African-American Muslim organization, after its leader Louis Farrakhan ceded control of the organization, reports The Los Angeles Times.
In a quarterly report from DHS to the Intelligence Oversight Board, the department called the incident a "questionable" activity. The note, entitled Nation of Islam: Uncertain Leadership Succession Poses Risk, was distributed to 482 e-mail addresses, including those of other federal agencies, the intelligence community, and one state government entity.
Immediately after it was sent, the report notes, a lawyer and an intelligence oversight officer at DHS I&A expressed concern and the office recalled the note and asked all recipients to delete it. An inquiry into the incident subsequently determined "I&A had violated internal intelligence oversight guidelines by collecting and retaining information on the Nation of Islam and other U.S. Persons named in the intelligence note."
In a letter attached to the quarterly report, then-Undersecretary of Intelligence and Analysis Charles E. Allen told DHS' Acting General Counsel Gus Coldebella and Inspector General Richard Skinner that the intelligence note on the Nation of Islam should have never have been issued because "the organization-despite its highly volatile and extreme rhetoric-has neither advocated violence nor engaged in violence."
In 2008, another DHS quarterly report to the Intelligence Oversight Board details a May 2008 incident in which I&A once again overstepped its bounds by collecting and storing information on a Muslim conference in Georgia and its speakers, some of whom were U.S. citizens, while it conducted surveillance on two individuals that go unnamed in the documents.
According to the letter explaining the incident:
I&A did not have any evidence the conference or the speakers promoted radical extremism or terrorist activity, and their activity is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Reporting on it violated I&A's Interim Intelligence Oversight Guidelines.
The report goes on to state that the "source information has been destroyed or deleted."
“I think it’s a positive sign that these agencies responded to this and took steps to correct the situation,” Marcia Hofmann, a staff attorney for the EFF, told The New York Times. She added, “We would never have known that this happened had we not seen these internal reports.”
DHS also responded to the incidents discovered by the FOIA release.
DHS spokesman Matt Chandler told the LA Times "DHS is fully committed to securing the nation from terrorist attacks and other threats, and we take very seriously our responsibility to protect the civil rights and liberties of the American people while fulfilling this mission." He also said DHS has instituted safeguards to ensure intelligence notes like the one referring to the Nation of Islam do not happen again.
This isn't the first time that DHS I&A has come under scrutiny. During the spring, it produced and disseminated an internal threat assessment to state and local law enforcement that theorized returning U.S. veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan could be recruited by rightwing extremists to attack the United States. After the document was leaked, it resulted in a firestorm of criticism for DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, who recalled the document and instituted processes to ensure it does not happen again.