FBI Should Not Involve Themselves in Political Theatre

Mar 19

An edited version was first published in Fayetteville Observor on March 19, 2009

In January 2009, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) told Fox News that it severing its ties with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a leading American Muslim organization. A month later, I was surprised to see a FBI agent stop by my office in Jacksonville seeking reasons for my resignation from being the Chairman of CAIR.

My reasons for departure were no secret. In a June 2008 interview to my local newspaper, I had said that to better serve the interests of its constituents, CAIR must empower a new generation of leaders who will foster greater accountability, transparency and professionalism. I had hoped that my departure will capacitate young talents into positions of leadership. The election of North Carolina State Senator Larry Shaw to succeed me took eight long months and yet there are no visible signs of revitalization to make the organization a more effective voice in the American socio-political discourse.

Despite my substantive disagreements with the organization, I find the FBI’s decision to cutoff relations with CAIR as unfortunate and unnecessary. I can only hope that this move does not represent a going back to the future of COINTELPRO, a FBI covert operation of the 1960s that was aimed at subverting civic organizations struggling for racial equality.

In the Fox News story, FBI spokesman John Miller reportedly said, “The FBI has had to limit its formal contact with CAIR field offices until certain issues are addressed by CAIR’s national headquarters.” The lack of clarity in FBI’s pronouncement has provided a pretext for some members of Congress to turn the ambiguity into a “government-wide policy.

If CAIR has “terrorist ties,” as Reps. Myrick and McHenry of North Carolina and Broun of Georgia claim they do, then the FBI should not be “limiting” contact with CAIR, but rather should shut the organization down. The American Muslim community, which has repeatedly condemned terrorism, have no interest in seeing any of its organizations tainted with “terrorist ties.” However, if there is no evidence linking CAIR to any terrorist activity (in all of my association with the organization, I was not aware of any unlawful activity) then the FBI should re-engage with CAIR on issues of common concern, such as protecting civil liberties, even if they disagree with some views of the organization.

According to published reports, the crux of FBI’s angst revolves around the Department of Justice (DOJ) naming of CAIR along with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT) as “unindicted co-conspirators” in a case against the Muslim charity Holy Land Foundation (HLF). In late 2008, HLF was convicted of conspiring to funnel money to Hamas, a Palestinian group designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. Many members of the American Muslim community viewed the case against HLF as more of a political witch-hunt than anything concerning the security of the United States. In a Dallas Morning News report, Tom Melsheimer, a former federal prosecutor, concurred, “To spend millions of dollars in time and expenses to prosecute people who were of no real threat to anyone, under the banner of a terrorism case, is a waste of precious federal resources.”

The FBI does not offer any explanation as to why issues with some antecedents going back over fifteen years is reason to cut off ties with CAIR now, particularly all its independently governed local offices? The fact that this decision comes eighteen months after the Justice department named CAIR along with 300 others as “unindicted co-conspirators” makes the move even more perplexing. The DOJ’s actions violated its own guidelines, prompting court challenges. Till date the courts have not ruled on the pending motions and it is not clear that they ever will. This is why in Ira Robbins of the American University wrote in the Federal Courts Law Review, “The grand jury practice of naming individuals as unindicted co-conspirators …appears to be an anomaly in United States law, in that it violates the Fifth Amendment guarantee that no person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

The FBI’s rather abrupt move to cut off relationship with CAIR is just as misguided as a statement by a coalition of Muslim groups calling on American Muslims to “consider suspending all outreach activities with FBI offices.” Limiting “formal contacts” or “suspending outreach” sends the wrong message at a time when the way forward, locally, nationally and globally, is sustained dialogue and diplomacy, even among those at political loggerheads.

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