Senate Measure Would Expand FBI’s Power to Target Internet Thought Crimes Under Guise of Fighting Terrorism

FBI Director James Comey

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence approved a measure in the 2016 intelligence authorization bill, which would require social media websites and email services to flag “terrorist activity” for the FBI and other law enforcement and security agencies.

According to the Washington Post, the measure would not “require companies to monitor their sites if they do not already do so.” It would apply to “electronic communication service providers,” and ensure they report videos or other content posted by “suspected terrorists.”

The expansion of power, which would increase the government’s power to undermine freedom of expression, is supposedly not supported by “industry officials” from companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

From the Post:

…“Asking Internet companies to proactively monitor people’s posts and messages would be the same thing as asking your telephone company to monitor and log all your phone calls, text messages, all your Internet browsing, all the sites you visit,” said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the provision is not yet public. “Considering the vast majority of people on these sites are not doing anything wrong, this type of monitoring would be considered by many to be an invasion of privacy. It would also be technically difficult.”…

Government officials may claim it is necessary for the fight against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. However, what the measure would do is increase the capability of the United States security state to engage in preemptive prosecution—to target and prosecute individuals or organizations who have beliefs, ideology, or a religious affiliations which make them a person of interest for the government.

For example, consider the case of Tarek Mehanna, who is currently serving a seventeen and a half-year prison sentence after he was convicted of material support for terrorism in December 2012.

Mehanna was “born in the United States to Egyptian immigrant parents and grew up outside of Boston. He became a devout Muslim who was fiercely critical of US foreign policy, especially in Muslim countries,” Amna Akbar wrote for The Nation. “He believed deeply in the right of Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries to defend against foreign occupation. And he talked about it. He subtitled “jihadi” videos; he translated an archaic oft-translated Arabic text 39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad [by Anwar Al-Awlaki]; and he engaged in religious and political debate online through instant messages, emails and web postings.”

Mehanna took a trip to Yemen in 2004 for “religious and language instruction.” The government has conceded there were no terrorism training camps in Yemen. Still, the government maintained he traveled to Yemen to train with a terrorist group.

The FBI began to spy on him in 2005 and attempted to turn him into an informant. When Mehanna refused, the FBI pledged to make his life difficult. Mehanna continued to translate texts, including various works about jihad by Afghan and Iraqi scholars. He posted them to his website, along with poetry and other writings. Mehanna was arrested in 2008 and charged with “conspiracy to give material support to terrorism by translating radical Arabic writings into English and posting them on his website,” according to the Project for the Support and Legal Advocacy of Muslims (Project SALAM).

Mehanna never acted under the direction of Al Qaeda yet the government insisted in court that his work had been intended to “inspire others to engage in violent jihad.” In fact, as Akbar noted, at no point did the government present evidence that Mehanna had provided support to any designated terrorist organization. There was no evidence that his translations caused harm. There was no evidence that his translation had incited “imminent criminal conduct.” What he was convicted of committing was inspiring others to “support opinions the United States government finds objectionable,” particularly opinions related to radical Islamic thought.

In 2013, Mehanna’s appeal was denied, which further solidified the power government prosecutors have to target people for speech and expression deemed dangerous. He is serving his sentence in a “communications management unit” in a prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, which means he is living in conditions of solitary confinement and confined to a cell 23 hours a day.

Mehanna’s postings would undoubtedly fall in the category of activity the FBI and other security agencies would want internet companies to flag, even though there was no explicit intent to incite any violence whatsoever. (more…)

Federal Appeals Court Revives Lawsuit Against Bush Officials for Post-9/11 Abuse of Immigration Detainees

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

A federal appeals court reinstated complaints in a lawsuit against former Justice Department officials, who allegedly violated the rights of Arab or Muslim immigrants in the immediate months after the September 11th terrorist attacks. It is very rare for this to happen.

The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of eight former detainees in 2002 by the Center for Constitutional Rights, seeks to hold former Attorney General John Ashcroft, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, and former Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service James W. Ziglar accountable for subjecting immigrants to harsh confinement on the basis of their race, national origin, and religion. (Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) and Passaic County Jail officials were also named as defendants in the lawsuit.)

In January 2013, a federal court dismissed the complaints after concluding there was no evidence the officials had any “intent to punish” the plaintiffs, who allege their rights were violated.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled [PDF] that the Justice Department officials were not entitled to “qualified immunity.” The appeals court also determined the confinement conditions imposed on immigrants, who were rounded up, were established with “punitive intent.”

“I am very delighted with the court’s ruling,” said Benamar Benatta, who is one of the plaintiffs in the case. “It has been a long and stressful process that has taken a tremendous toll on my life, however, it is this kind of bold decision that restores my faith in the US judicial system and gives me hope that justice will be served at the end.”

In Benatta’s case, he was cleared for release from detention on November 14, 2001, but despite the fact that the MDC had this information, Benatta was kept in solitary confinement until April 30, 2002.

The lawsuit indicates immigrants (or what the court refers to as “‘out of status’ aliens,”) were subject to a “hold-until-cleared policy,” and kept in confinement for “lengthy periods of times—often for months after they were ordered removed from the country—until the FBI affirmatively cleared them of suspicion of wrongdoing.”

The Muslim men, who are plaintiffs, were held in an Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit ( “ADMAX SHU”). In a tiny cell, they were held:

…[F]or over 23 hours a day, provided with meager and barely edible food, and prohibited from moving around the unit, using the telephone freely, using the commissary, accessing MDC handbooks (which explained how to file complaints about mistreatment), and keeping any property, including personal hygiene items like toilet paper and soap, in their cells. Whenever they left their cells, they were handcuffed and shackled. Although they were offered the nominal opportunity to visit the recreation area outside of their cells several times a week, the recreation area was exposed to the elements and the MDC Detainees were not offered clothing beyond their standard cotton prison garb and a light jacket. Furthermore, detainees who accepted such offers were often physically abused along the way, and were sometimes left for hours in the cold recreation cell, over their protests, as a form of punishment. As a result, they were constructively denied exercise during the fall and winter….

The men were “strip-searched every time they were removed from or returned to their cells, including before and after visiting with their attorneys, receiving medical care, using the recreation area, attending a court hearing, and being transferred to another cell. “ Each time they arrived at the MDC “in the receiving and discharge area and again after they had been escorted – shackled and under continuous guard – to the ADMAX SHU,” they were strip-searched, even though there was absolutely no opportunity for them to obtain contraband.

“[DOJ Defendants] seem to imply once ‘national security’ concerns become a reason for holding someone, there is no need to show a connection between those concerns and the captive other than that the captive shares common traits of the terrorist: illegal immigrant status and a perceived Arab or Muslim affiliation,” the appeals court stated. (more…)