FBI says spy flights not aimed at racial groups
The FBI was conducting a specific criminal probe and not investigating credible terror threats nor targeting racial or religious communities, the bureau told community leaders at a meeting Wednesday night.
The meeting followed a Detroit News report exposing surveillance flights across the region and Dearborn.
“We are very satisfied that the community is not being surveilled,” said Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News. “There is no massive surveillance of any nature. We support whatever the FBI is doing to protect our country and our nation as long as they’re doing it according to the Constitution and under the law, and they’re targeting criminals.
“We believe they are telling the truth.”
The head of the FBI in Detroit, following the report in The News, said the agency is not investigating terror threats nor targeting communities.
The statement from Special Agent in Charge Paul Abbate sought to quell complaints among religious leaders and civil libertarians who accused the FBI of deliberately targeting Muslims in Dearborn. It did not specify the purpose of the flights.
The federal officials met with local community leaders Wednesday evening at the Arab American News office to talk about concerns stemming from the flights.
“We’ve earned this distrust and this paranoia and I think over the years, we see all the past history in our interactions with the FBI,” said Nabih Ayad, chairman of the Arab American Civil Rights League. “So when something like this happens, it immediately triggers us — “Oh no not again.’ However, due to this FBI director Special Agent Paul Abbate and his excellent relationship in the community and the trust that has been built ... he has assured there is no mass surveillance going on. It’s particularized, detailed investigations that are happening. We are listening and we take his word at it.”
Abbate said in a statement earlier Wednesday that the FBI is not using its surveillance program to conduct mass surveillance on people by capturing cellphone communications.
“Contrary to the suggestion of some recent media reporting, the FBI does not employ aviation assets to conduct mass surveillance nor to target specific communities,” Abbate said in a statement. “Neither does the FBI monitor lawfully protected First Amendment activity. Further, the FBI Detroit Field Office is not aware of any specific or credible threats within the local Detroit Metropolitan area.”
Fatina Abdrabboh, director of the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee, who also was at the meeting, said the “mere swiftness” with which the community leaders were able to meet with Abbate “speaks to the level of trust that we have worked toward as a community in relationship to federal government.”
The FBI did not provide details Wednesday of its investigation, community leaders said.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who also attended the meeting Wednesday, said she thought the FBI was trying to be responsible, but hoped the local community would be portrayed accurately and not unfairly targeted.
“We want every American to be able to have freedom of speech, religion — all of their civil liberties,” she said.
Ayad said his office sent a letter to U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade asking for an investigation. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee Michigan Regional Office also said they sought a probe.
The News on Tuesday reported that an airplane linked to an FBI surveillance program that tracks alleged terrorists, spies and criminals has flown at least seven times over Metro Detroit, including two lengthy flights over the Dearborn area last weekend.
Flight data reviewed by The News shows increased flights over Metro Detroit in the past week with prolonged surveillance over Dearborn, a city heavily populated by Muslims and Middle Eastern residents. In all, the FBI surveillance plane has flown over Metro Detroit seven times since Friday, according to the website FlightRadar24.com.
The News article reiterated an FBI statement from June that said the aircraft are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection or mass surveillance. Neither are they routinely equipped with technology that mimics cell towers and lets the FBI locate and intercept communications from cellphones and wireless devices.
On Tuesday, The News sought comment from the FBI about the flights. FBI spokesman David Porter declined comment and, instead, emailed a June press release issued by the FBI related to an Associated Press investigation of similar surveillance flights.
Abbate’s statement Wednesday comes hours after Muslim community activist Dawud Walid asked the House Judiciary Committee to investigate the flights.
Walid still wants an inquiry, despite Abbate’s statement.
“That there are no credible threats in our area still has not prevented the FBI from being involved in racial and religious mapping of communities including Dearborn prior to the revelations about the spy plane,” Walid said Wednesday afternoon. “That the FBI states that it is operating within its Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide is not comforting because that guide allows for the agency to use national origin and religion as factors for threat assessments of community members.”
Detroit News Staff Writers Candice Williams and Mark Hicks contributed.