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San Francisco Terror Task Force: Officials Urged To Bring Unit Under Control

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This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch.

By G.W. Schulz

Muslim community members and other residents are urging San Francisco officials to pass a proposed ordinance that would restore local control over a terrorism task force made up of police and the FBI.

Speakers turned up for a City Hall hearing on the matter last week and recounted what they described as unnecessary questioning and surveillance at the hands of task force operators. More than 70 such teams were created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to bolster information and resource sharing between the Justice Department in Washington and local police.

County Supervisor Jane Kim wrote the proposal [PDF] for tougher oversight and says a secret 2007 agreement between the San Francisco Police Department and FBI clashes with state and local policies meant to protect privacy and restrict intelligence gathering. The agreement only became public last year following a public records request from advocacy groups.

“This legislation is not about blaming any entity for what is going on today,” Kim said at the hearing, motivated in part by complaints from Muslim and Arab small-business owners in her district. “It is merely about ensuring our civil rights. It’s also about making a statement to our residents that we don’t tolerate investigations that don’t have a basis, that don’t have grounds in criminal suspicion.”

Nasrina Bargzie of San Francisco’s Asian Law Caucus, which supports the ordinance proposal, told the board that she was contacted by an FBI agent as a college student and instructed to either meet him at a coffee shop to answer questions or be visited at home. Bargzie, an Afghan immigrant whose father was executed by that country’s government in the 1970s, says she was asked by the agent about her family history and background.

“To be subjected to that questioning was frightening,” Bargzie testified. “It had nothing to do with anything, and my story is not atypical.” Bargzie went on to describe how one of her law clients, a Middle Eastern engineering student, was similarly approached by the FBI for questioning, e-mailed repeatedly and visited at his home.

Zahra Billoo testified that since joining the Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in 2009 and becoming its executive director, she's heard from people on a weekly basis who say they were targeted and harassed by law enforcement.

“None of my clients have ever been charged with a crime,” Billoo said. “But many, many of them have been questioned about their religious and political beliefs, an unfortunate consequence of federal and local collaboration on practices that resulted in civil rights abuses.”

Heavily redacted documents obtained last year by the American Civil Liberties Union through open-government laws showed that FBI agents in California had collected intelligence on Muslims under what the advocacy group called a guise of “community outreach.”

Police officials previously have said that the 2007 agreement no longer applies, and Chief Greg Suhr issued a new order requiring all personnel to abide by California law and fall in line with the San Francisco Police Department’s chain of command. The FBI, for its part, has said its outreach efforts are meant only to soothe relations with Muslims and uphold, not undermine, the civil rights of people viewed as potential terrorists.

Portland, Ore., was long the only city to balk at an intimate partnership with the FBI on terrorism investigations. That relationship was reconsidered after the FBI charged teenager Mohamed Mohamud with attempting to blow up a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in 2010.

Like other terror suspects since Sept. 11, Mohamud claims he was entrapped by the FBI and lured by informants into attempting an attack with a bomb-detonation device that agents knew would cause no harm.

City officials in Portland, after dropping out of the task force, rejoined it only after setting out a list of rules along the lines of what San Francisco is debating now, such as mandating that terrorism probes have a “criminal nexus” before Portland officers proceed.

Kim’s proposal also would require that San Francisco police investigations and intelligence gathering involving First Amendment-protected activities, such as public protests, be reviewed and approved by the police chief in writing.

The San Francisco hearing can be viewed online here. Click on “video” for March 1.

G.W. Schulz is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.

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