Patt Morrison for August 16, 2012

Orange County mosque spying case raises privacy concerns

Omar Shamout

Male worshipers at a mosque stand at prayer.

Privacy takes a back seat to national security – that was the ruling of a U.S. district court judge who threw out a lawsuit against the FBI and the U.S. Government. The suit was filed on behalf of Muslim Orange County residents by the ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and they are planning to appeal the ruling.

The lawsuit says the FBI indiscriminately targeted Muslims for surveillance based on their religion after a convict who worked for the FBI posing as a Muslim and doing the spying went public with his story. His allegations of not being given specific targets by the FBI – instead engaging in a “dragnet” investigation – are central to the lawsuit filed against the government. The court said it could not consider the case because to do so would risk revealing information crucial to national security.

Peter Bibring, staff attorney at ACLU, told Patt Morrison that it doesn't matter why the FBI wanted to collect information on the Orange County Muslim community.

"The point here is we talk about defending freedom and defending this country, and we value greatly the principles of religious speech ... enshrined in the constitution," he said. "What makes our country so unique in its value of individual freedom is that a person who thinks that their government hasn't lived by those promises can go into court and hold their government accountable."

According to Bibring, the court's decision gives "them a trump card that says, 'We don't have to answer allegations; this is too important, even if we did violate those core principles,'" he said.

David Rivkin, partner at Baker Hostetler law firm, said the government's privilege is merited in this particular case. "We're talking about something that is essential for the protection of public safety," he said. "This is one of those instances where the liberty of the individual clashes with the liberty of the whole. It's not an evil thing ... it's just one of the instances where we have to balance the two."

WEIGH IN

Is this any different from spying in other eras, when the targets were communists or other dissenters? Or has the post-9/11 and post-Patriot Act legal climate actually resulted in the erosion of privacy rights?

Guests:

David Rivkin, partner at the D.C.-based Baker Hostetler law firm; he previously served in the Department of Justice and has filed Supreme Court and appellate amicus briefs defending the government in several post-September 11th national security cases

Peter Bibring, staff attorney, American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California

Trevor Aaronson, writer for Mother Jones magazine; author of "The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism"


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