Court Battles

Supreme Court sides with FBI in suit over post-9/11 surveillance

The Supreme Court on Friday sided with the U.S. government in a lawsuit brought against the FBI over a controversial post-9/11 surveillance operation that targeted a Muslim community in California.

In a unanimous ruling, the court found that the government could respond to the litigation by asserting the state secrets privilege, a legal doctrine allowing government information to be concealed if its disclosure would harm national security.

The decision concerned only the narrow and technical issue of whether the state secrets privilege is available to the government here. The 9-0 decision, penned by Justice Samuel Alito, held that the FBI can invoke this legal doctrine as the case proceeds through the lower courts. 

The dispute traces back to 2006, when the FBI launched a 14-month counterterrorism operation aimed at surveilling members of Southern California’s Muslim community. 

The bureau relied on an informant, Craig Monteilh, to pose as a Muslim convert. He recorded his conversations at mosques and during other interactions. Midway through the operation, in a twist of irony, Monteilh began to make provocative statements about jihad that so alarmed his new Muslim acquaintances that they eventually reported him to the FBI.

Monteilh and the FBI later parted ways, and he went public with the details of the operation. The FBI has since confirmed that Monteilh made secret recordings as part of his undercover work.

In 2011, three Muslim men who had been spied on sued the FBI and its agents, alleging that, among other things, they had been illegally targeted because of their religion.

In response, the government invoked the state secrets privilege and asked the judge to dismiss the relevant claims because litigating them would require the disclosure of protected information. The court granted the FBI’s request, prompting an appeal by the plaintiffs.

The San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling, siding against the FBI and allowing some of the Muslim plaintiffs’ claims to proceed. 

The appeals court ruled the district court had erred by applying the state secrets privilege rather than using a procedure provided in a provision of the 1970s-era statute called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

But Friday’s unanimous decision by the Supreme Court overruled the lower appeals court, with the justices holding that the FISA provision at issue does not eliminate or curtail the availability of the state secrets privilege.



Tags FBI Samuel Alito Supreme Court

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