9th Circuit revives Muslims’ spying lawsuit against FBI
A federal appeals court decided unanimously Thursday to revive much of a proposed class action lawsuit brought by Southern California Muslims against the FBI, charging they were subjected to surveillance because of their religion. The decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will return the case to a district court for further review.
The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU of Southern California, charged that for at least 14 months in 2006 and 2007, the FBI paid a confidential informant to spy on Muslims in Southern California’s mosques and elsewhere.
The informant used audio and video equipment to secretly record Muslims at various places, including at places of prayer, primarily in Orange County.
The operation was part of a counterterrorism investigation known as Operation Flex. The Muslim community contended it amounted to “dragnet surveillance” whose purpose was to indiscriminately “gather information on Muslims.”
The FBI contended the operation was intended to prevent terrorist acts and focused on fewer than 25 people.
A federal judge dismissed the bulk of the lawsuit in 2012 after the government argued it could not defend itself without disclosing state secrets.
In a 103-page decision, the 9th Circuit said the district court should not have dismissed claims based on state secrets without more review.
“The legal questions presented in this case have been many and difficult,” Judge Marsha S. Berzon wrote for the court, and “will reverberate in the context of the larger ongoing national conversation” about how to respond to threats of terrorism “without fueling a climate of fear rooted in stereotypes and discrimination.”
The government’s contention that the suit cannot be defended without disclosing matters of national security “does not warrant dismissal of this litigation in its entirety,” the court said.
The 9th Circuit said the district court should determine whether the electronic surveillance was “lawfully authorized and conducted” and whether it violated the Muslims’ constitutional rights.