Posted on November 08, 2012 in Speeches and Appearances

Relations between Arab Americans and Law Enforcement Agencies: Before and After 9/11      

The story of Arab Americans coming of age as an organized community is a classic American tale of immigrants seeking opportunity, benefiting from America’s freedoms, but also experiencing, at times, the dark side of exclusion and discrimination that has so often been a part of our nation’s history.

During the period that preceded 9/11, law enforcement agencies not only failed to assist Arab Americans in their efforts to secure their rights; oftentimes these agencies were the problem.  From FOIA releases and discoveries from law suits, we have learned of the extent of government harassment of Arab Americans and Arab student activists—from Operation Boulder in the Nixon era, and the broad surveillance program against Palestinian student organizations in the 70’s and 80’s, to the extensive intelligence files on Arab American activists maintained by the FBI sometimes in collaboration with outside groups, that were then used to harass and blacklist members of my community.

At the same time that these violations of rights were occurring, little was being done to defend the rights of Arab Americans. I, for example, had been subjected to repeated death threats from the early 1970’s. My office here in Washington, DC, was fire-bombed in 1980. And the offices of another group I had co-founded were targeted in a spate of attacks in the mid-1980’s. One of these attacks resulted in the murder of my friend Alex Odeh in October of 1985. During this entire time, there was not a single indictment, not a single arrest. I remember going to the FBI in early 1980’s with over one hundred affidavits from Arab Americans complaining of harassment by law enforcement officials and twelve other affidavits reporting threats (including a few from Alex). I asked them “why was so much effort being expended to harass my community while so little was being done to defend our rights?”

In fact, the insensitive and questionable behavior of law enforcement agencies was so problematic, that it was one of the main reasons we formed the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.  

It was the FBI’s ABSCAM initiative that pushed former US Senator James Abourezk to ask me to join him in forming the ADC, a group we established to combat negative stereotypes and defamation, and to fight discrimination and harassment by law enforcement agencies.

With the Clinton Administration, my community’s access to the White House improved, as did official responsiveness to our concerns. For example, in the 1990’s, we experienced problems with wide-spread subjective airport profiling and the use of “secret evidence” and we felt the need to challenge these practices and build better ties with law enforcement agencies around the country. It was Vice President Al Gore, Attorney General Janet Reno, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder and Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Bill Lan Lee who brought us in for a series of meetings that helped us work through and resolve many of these critical issues. To facilitate these conversations, Deputy AG Holder and Assistant AG Bill Lan Lee initiated the first formal outreach effort to Arab Americans by the DOJ.

If it had not been for the advances we made, the access we gained, the empowerment we experienced and the allies we developed during the 1990’s, I do not think we would have been able to withstand the challenges we faced in the aftermath of 9/11.

The horrific terrorist attacks of September 11 were a profound and painful tragedy for all Americans. The attacks were a dual tragedy for Arab Americans. We are Americans and it was our country that was attacked. Arab Americans died in the attacks. Arab Americans were also part of the rescue effort. Dozens of New York City Police and rescue workers who bravely toiled at Ground Zero were Arab American.

Sadly, however, many Arab Americans were torn away from mourning with our fellow Americans because we became the targets of hate crimes and discrimination. Some assumed our collective guilt because the terrorists were Arabs. Arab Americans and Muslims and others perceived to be Arab and Muslim were the victims of hundreds of incidents of bias.

But something very important happened, making it clear that despite the enormity of the crime that had been committed and new challenges we would face, a new dynamic was at work. The American people rallied to our defense.

President Bush spoke out forcefully against hate crimes, as did countless others across the nation. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives unanimously passed resolutions condemning hate crimes against Arab Americans and Muslims. Federal, state and local law enforcement investigated and prosecuted hate crimes, and ordinary citizens defended and protected us, refusing to allow bigots to define America. My family and I received death threats. That had happened before. But for the first time, the perpetrators were arrested by the FBI, prosecuted by the DOJ, and convicted and sentenced for hate crimes. It was a first—a first I shall never forget. My community, and I personally, will always be grateful that our fellow Americans defended us during that difficult time.

Arab Americans were proud to have played a crucial role in the post-9/11 era, serving on the front lines of the effort to keep our country and people secure. We served as police, firefighters, soldiers, FBI agents, and translators. My office worked with federal, state and local law enforcement to assist efforts to protect the homeland. We also helped to recruit Arab Americans with needed language skills and served as a bridge to connect law enforcement with our community.

Working with the Washington Field Office of the FBI, we helped to create the first Arab American Advisory Committee, an effort to facilitate communication between the Arab American community and the FBI. I served as a member of that FBI Advisory Committee, which we believed could be a model to be copied across the United States (only to learn, more recently, that the FBI has used these efforts to engage in intelligence gathering).

The Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, at our request, began an important effort to continue the interagency information-sharing and problem-solving conversations we had begun during the Clinton years. Under then Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Ralph Boyd’s leadership, the Civil Rights Division convened regular sessions for Arab American and American Muslim leaders with relevant DOJ offices, the FBI and other concerned agencies. These meetings played an important role in providing our community leadership with the opportunity to address and resolve the pressing problems that emerged in the aftermath of 9/11. [They have continued in the Obama Administration under the leadership of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Tom Perez.]

But all was not well during the Bush Administration.

At the same time that these positive developments were occurring, an entirely different message was being sent as a result of initiatives launched by then Attorney General John Ashcroft. Of special concern were the 2003 Racial Profiling Guidelines that created a loophole allowing ethnic, religious, and racial profiling, and leading to wide-spread singling out of Arabs and Muslims by Customs and Border Patrol, TSA, and FBI officials.

These Ashcroft-era guidelines were enlarged upon in 2008 by Attorney General Mukasey, whose new guidelines for the FBI opened the door to even greater abuses. These are, of course, deeply troubling because as law enforcement profiles Arabs and Muslims and as officials carry out practices and issue statements conflating Arab and Muslim immigrants and visitors with terrorism, a cloud of suspicion is cast over the entire community which only contributes to increasing discrimination.

This problem of profiling, and the dangerous conflation of immigration policy and national security policy, took many forms in the post-9/11 era. In the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks there was a roundup of over 1,200 Arab and Muslim immigrants. They were imprisoned and deported.  This was followed by two highly publicized “call-ups” of 5,000 and then 3,000 young male Arab immigrants and visitors.  Finally there was the NSEERS program, a badly conceived, poorly planned and arbitrarily implemented program that resulted in the issuance of thousands of deportation orders – oftentimes without justification. Add to this the “October Plan” launched in the lead up to the 2004 election. Not only did officials once again profile Arab and Muslim immigrant communities, but the way the program was announced and implemented had a chilling effect on the participation of some Arab Americans in the electoral process itself. The net result of all these programs has been to create fear and to break trust with the recent immigrant Arab community.

As disturbing as these behaviors are, even more troubling is the fact that these profiling initiatives have made no contribution to making our country more secure. FBI and other officials with whom I have spoken question the usefulness of these programs in national security efforts. They told me that these initiatives have involved a significant waste of time and resources, have produced little useful information, and have damaged community outreach efforts, alienating communities whose cooperation law enforcement needs. As such, they run counter to basic principles of community policing, which rejects the use of racial and ethnic profiling and focuses instead on building trust and respect by working cooperatively with community members.  These profiling programs also threatened to erase many of the gains Arab Americans had won during the Clinton years.

With the election of Barack Obama, we had hopes that we would see an end to many of these abusive practices, but this has not been the case. Policies we had believed would change have not changed – in some cases they have become worse. The Justice Department profiling guidelines remain in place and continue to be used by a number of agencies to the detriment of my community. I recently returned from a visit to Michigan where, in discussions with partner organizations, I was briefed on the behavior of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials. I have spoken with Arab American citizens who told me about disgraceful and humiliating treatment they experienced crossing our border with Canada. In some cases the behavior has been so disturbing that Arab Americans have forfeited business opportunities or stopped visiting family members out of fear of dealing with USCBP.

We had hoped to see a sunsetting of the more controversial provisions of the Patriot Act. This, too, did not happen. We are also deeply disturbed as we have learned details of the NYPD/CIA surveillance program – a shocking violation of our community’s rights. As the details of this NYPD program have come to light, we have been horrified by its use of coerced informants, wide-spread “ethnic mapping”, and spying and reporting on innocent people going about their daily routines. This program has reminded us of the behavior of the “mukhabarrat” – the hated secret police that operate in some Arab dictatorships.  That the White House has apparently given its approval and even provided funding for this NYPD effort is even more distressing.

We have been troubled by reports we have received from the ACLU establishing that the FBI has used the community outreach programs to "collect and illegally store intelligence information on

Americans’ political and religious beliefs" - a clear violation of trust. And finally, we are deeply disappointed by the Justice Department and FBI’s failure to take decisive action in dealing with the scandal over the FBI’s use of bigoted anti-Arab and anti-Muslim training materials. We have asked for greater transparency and full disclosure in explaining how these materials were developed in the first place and how many agents have been trained with them. We have also offered to assist in crafting new training materials and we have asked the FBI to apologize. Our argument is that “educational programs” or “cultural proficiency training” should not be shrouded in secrecy. It is not about “methods and sources.” It is about educating agents about our community’s history, culture, and religions.  For the DOJ and the FBI to not understand the damage they have done, the hurt they have created, and the trust they have broken, is incomprehensible.

Here is the problem: there can be no doubt that  during the past several decades we have made gains and developed relationships with agencies of government that are important to our personal security and the security of the country we love. In all of this, the work of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division remains a shelter in the storm. And we remain forever indebted to those FBI agents and civil rights attorneys at DOJ who have investigated and then prosecuted hate crimes against us and have worked with us to ensure our safety. And finally, there are a number of US Attorneys who have developed relationships of trust and support with many communities around the country. 

But the negative practices I have noted here threaten to undercut this good will and break trust between my community and law enforcement agencies. These behaviors create fear in my community and create suspicion about us in the broader society. This, in turn, leads to alienation and has the potential to radicalize some. It also leads to an atmosphere where hate and suspicion can grow – further marginalizing some in my community, while making others more vulnerable to hate crimes.

I have long argued that Arabs and Muslims were the weak link in America's civil liberty chain. When the rights of vulnerable minority groups are threatened, we recognize the need to demand a halt to abuse, because we have learned that when the rights of any group are compromised, the rights of all are at risk. It is worrisome that in the post-9/11 era the challenge to constitutional rights has all too often been met with silence—because it was Arabs and Muslims who were the targets. What we have failed to recognize is that if the rights to assemble, to speak freely, to be secure from unwarranted search, and to be guaranteed due process are put at risk by the FBI, CBP, ICE, NYPD and CIA, then these rights may ultimately be threatened for all Americans.