In 2006, the FBI used an undercover informant to infiltrate various mosques in Orange County, despite a promise by a high-ranking bureau official that the FBI would never do so. (Click here to read an in-depth OC Weekly feature story about the case). Now, more than a decade later, the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, has won a landmark ruling that will have nationwide consequences.
The Feb. 28 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stems from a lawsuit brought by local plaintiffs who accused the government of spying on them in violation of their civil liberties, demanding access to documents showing what the FBI was up to. The feds refused to comply with the request, arguing that to do so would jeopardize U.S. national security. But now, the government can no longer simply claim a national security exemption when responding to claims of unlawful surveillance of U.S. citizens.
First some background on the case, since it’s difficult to imagine one more colorful or ridiculous. The informant, Craig Monteilh, happened to be a convicted felon and con artist, which one might think would have raised a red flag or two. Yet for months, Monteilh, a bodybuilder and personal trainer, posed as a recent Muslim convert and insinuated himself into the community by, among other things, inviting fellow male congregants to work out with him at the gym as well as seeking to seduce female worshippers. To prolong his paid spying gig, he told his handlers that he was hot on the trail of a violent ring of extremists who were planning terrorist acts throughout Southern California, even going so far as to describe a group of men bringing food into a mosque as a possible team of bomb-making experts.
But in reality, Monteilh was just freaking people out. His extremist rhetoric and apparent interest in violent jihad so startled his presumed targets in the operation that they reached out to Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR, and told them about Monteilh’s potential status as a terrorist.
“I got a call from a couple of individuals mentioning to me they were driving in a car to a mosque in Culver City,” Ayloush recalls. “And Craig was talking about literally blowing up things, saying ‘We need to teach America a lesson, America is the enemy, this is the only way America understands, through my military background I have access to bomb-making materials in my apartment.’ This was right after a drone strike in Afghanistan happened in which innocent Afghans were killed, so he used that to incite them.”
Ayloush then called then-Assistant FBI Director Stephen Tidwell, who had recently appeared at a mosque in Irvine and publicly promised that the FBI was not spying on Muslims in Orange County. “I called him and said, ‘Hey Steve, I think we we have a terrorist for you here.’ He said, ‘Oh that’s great, what happened? And initially he was very excited, but the minute I said he is a white guy in Irvine who claims to Muslim, he said, ‘Oh, I am very grateful you called, Hussam. We will call the Irvine PD; you don’t have to call them.”
At this point, Ayloush realized that Tidwell already knew all about Monteilh. “For me, that was the hint,” he says. “I knew he was either under watch and they were keeping an eye on him or he was working for them.” Confirming Ayloush’s suspicions was the fact that shortly after he got off the telephone with Tidwell, an irate Monteilh called both Ayloush and the two people who had initially reported him. “How dare you report me to the FBI?” Monteilh complained. “Hussam is a dog who works for CAIR and the Christians and the Jews and is not a good Muslim. He is trying to divide us and get us into trouble.”
His cover blown, Monteilh went to the press with his story, at first claiming that he was a patriotic American who had only been trying to help his country fight the war on terror. But after the Weekly revealed his extensive background as a con artist, he ultimately sued the FBI and spoke openly about the depths to which he and the bureau went to spy on unsuspecting Muslims. Monteilh also provided information to the ACLU that helped in the filing of the lawsuit.
Dan Stormer is a veteran ACLU lawyer from Los Angeles who helped with the case filed on behalf of CAIR and the victims of the FBI’s surveillance. (Full disclosure: I was a plaintiff in a police brutality lawsuit involving an anti-apartheid protest at University of Southern California in the late 1980s that Stormer handled).
“The impact historically that this case brings is that when there is any accusation of terrorism the state has hidden behind the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] which involves state secrets,” Stormer explained in a recent interview. “So they just wave these talismans and the courts have said, ‘Okay, there can be no complaint against the FBI or any of its agents.’ This ruling says for the first time that yes they can be held liable and there has to be a legitimate state secret and not just some vague statement that they fear it will reveal something.”
Stormer adds that the FBI’s behavior in the Monteilh case was unconscionable. “It was a totally spurious claim that they needed to infiltrate mosques and community meetings,” he argues. “There was absolutely nothing there to infiltrate. It was just a completely spurious invasion of my clients’ rights.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).