On the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization in the US, issued a statement titled “Remembrance and Resilience” that condemned the attacks, calling it “a tragedy we will never forget.” At the same time, CAIR’s statement described how American Muslims became victims of “scapegoating” and “finger-pointing” since the attacks. The statements called upon American Muslims to be proud, to unite, and to stand-up against injustice, particularly the laws and regulations that were issued by the US government since the attacks.
These laws and regulations are discussed in this interview with Edward Ahmed Mitchell, CAIR’s Deputy Director.
Mitchell, an attorney, previously served as the Executive Director of CAIR’s branch in the state of Georgia. During that time, CAIR resolved numerous cases of anti-Muslim discrimination in the state.
Mitchell also served as secretary of the National Association of Muslim Lawyers, an editor of “Atlanta Muslim,” a member of the Georgia Association of Muslim Lawyers, and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Islamic Community Center of Atlanta.
Q. In 2001, right after the attacks, the Congress passed the “Patriot Act.” Is it still the law of the land?
A. When the Congress quickly passed the Patriot Act in 2001, lawmakers gave the federal government limitless surveillance powers that included authorizing courts of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to issue either rubber- stamped warrants or permit the warrantless searches of private records, property, and communications.
The severity of these unconstitutional abuses would only later be revealed by whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, and reporters like Glenn Greenwald.
Yes, the Patriot Act is still the law of the land.
Q. In 2002, the Bush Administration started the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), but, in 2011, parts of the program were dropped and the whole program ended in 2016. What were the problems with this program?
A. The NSEERS program required nonimmigrant men and boys from predominantly Muslim countries to report to an immigration office to be photographed, fingerprinted and interviewed. Those targeted by the NSEERS program were also required to leave the United States through specified ports.
Anyone who failed to comply with the program faced arrest and deportation.
When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) dropped the program in 2011, it was viewed by many as being an ineffective and burdensome program that was a massive profiling campaign targeting individuals based on their Muslim religion and ethnicity.
Five years later, during the Obama Administration, the program was disbanded for good.
It is also important to note that in the days and weeks following September 11, the federal government rounded up and detained nearly 800 Muslim citizens and immigrants, and held them for days or weeks without being charged, as they were interrogated under the false pretense of being a threat.
Many Muslim immigrants were deported without reason or charge.
Q. In 2003, former President George W. Bush established the Terrorism Screening Database (TSDB), also known as the “Watchlist.” How has that affected Muslims?
A. The “Watchlist” system is a set of interconnected national security programs throughout the federal government that essentially acts as a “stop-and-frisk” program that often targets Muslims for enhanced screening and interrogation.
The “Watchlist” currently includes more than one million names.
Countless American Muslims are on the No Fly and Selectee List, including children.
The system has been used as a tool to target innocent Muslims secretly and systematically without due process or accountability. A federal lawsuit recently revealed that the federal government has distributed one of its watchlists to local governments and private entities, including employers and banking institutions. This has impacted Muslims looking for jobs, buying a car, traveling across borders, using bank accounts, wiring money to family overseas, and even during traffic stops.
CAIR and a number of other civil rights groups are engaged in multiple federal lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the various aspects of the system.
Q. Last June, CAIR filed a lawsuit against the spying on Muslims by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), mostly by using informants. How serious has the informants problem been?
A. Over the past two decades, the FBI has reportedly built a network of at least 15,000 registered informants, some of whom are paid to infiltrate American Muslim communities.
CAIR estimates that nearly half of all federal terrorism prosecutions during this period involved the use of an informant and about a third of sting operations were driven by an informant who led the plot.
A number of those cases involved financially-motivated informants who, going to great lengths over long periods of time, sought to radicalize and enable unlikely and at times mentally-ill individuals to commit acts of scripted terrorism.
Q. In 2015, the Congress limited the part of the Patriot Act about mass surveillance of people, particularly Muslims. Did that end the surveillance?
A. Under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, Congress enabled the National Security Agency (NSA) and FBI to collect the phone, e-mail, and online records of millions of law-abiding Americans in the name of national security for more than a decade.
In 2015, Congress attempted to limit Section 215 to only collection on “specific selection terms,” but that could still permit courts to order private businesses to turn over large quantities of phone records from certain area codes, ZIP codes, and regions of the U.S.
CAIR believes that the NSA meta-data programs have been used to spy upon and collect the communications of many Arab and Muslim Americans.
Q. In 2012, the Associated Press reported that the New York Police Department (NYPD) had established a well-funded and staffed campaign to spy on New York Muslims. CAIR, at that time, launched a campaign against the NYPD. What has happened since then?
A. From 2001 to 2014, the New York Police Department carried out an illegal and unconstitutional human mapping program that spied on and infiltrated Islamic institutions, including houses of worship, student groups and businesses that cater to the Muslim community.
The NYPD also recruited informants it referred to as “mosque crawlers” to monitor religious sermons without any suspicion of wrongdoing.
But NYPD officials acknowledged that the program generated zero criminal leads. And in 2014, the NYPD disbanded its special unit that had been conducting the surveillance.
Q. In 2016, the Obama Administration approved the Countering Violent Extremism program (CVE) ostensibly to gain the cooperation of Muslims to counter terrorism. But the Trump Administration changed the program. What happened?
A. From its inception, the underlying goal of the CVE has been to gain access to, to surveil and to collect information on the American Muslim community. The program was first piloted in three cities with large Muslim populations: Boston, Los Angeles, and Minnesota.
CVE goals purportedly include intervening in an individual’s path toward violent extremism, interdicting in criminal activity and reintegrating those convicted of criminal activity into society.
But the true motive of singularly targeting the Muslim community was exposed by the Trump Administration’s withdrawal of CVE funds from projects that did not focus on Muslims, and did not involve law enforcement. While the Biden administration is attempting to establish a new program under a different name that would address broader forms of extremism, civil rights organizations remain extremely wary of such programs—to say the least.
Q. In 2017, the Trump Administration declared the “Muslim Ban.” CAIR and other human rights organizations played a major role against the ban until it was terminated by the Biden Administration. How much damage has it inflicted on Muslims, inside and outside the US?
A. The Trump administration’s discriminatory Muslim and African Bans represented the culmination of 15 years of anti-Muslim politicians, media and hate groups fear-mongering about Muslims. The Ban was amended several times as a result of successful court challenges. At various times, the Ban imposed differing levels of discriminatory travel restrictions on half a dozen Muslim-majority countries, such as Libya, Iran, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, among other nations.
Because of the ban, which the Supreme Court eventually upheld, thousands of Muslim families have been ripped apart, students have been deprived of educational opportunities, the sick have been blocked from receiving treatment, talented workers have lost out on jobs, and refugees have been trapped in dangerous conditions.
The Muslim Ban was repealed on the first day of the Biden Administration.
However, the damage it caused continues to persist, and Congress has yet to pass legislation that would prevent the Muslim Ban from being imposed in the future.