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Muslim group sues FBI over surveillance at California mosques

Council on American-Islamic Relations and ACLU say a paid FBI informant violated the First Amendment rights of worshipers at several California mosques, targeting the most devout. They sued the FBI Wednesday.

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But the FBI can't ignore the role of mosques as potential hubs of terror activity, says Gabriel Schoenfeld, a national security expert at the Hudson Institute. Some of the organizers of the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, for example, met at a mosque in New Jersey.

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"Mosques can't be sanctuaries for criminals," says Dr. Schoenfeld, author of "Necessary Secrets: National Security, Media, and the Rule of Law."

"Even if the FBI did something wrong in this case, that would not eliminate the need for the agency to investigate places like mosques, where terror activities have been cooked up in the past. Does that cut against the First Amendment? Undoubtedly. But the First Amendment isn't a suicide pact. It has to be balanced against other provisions of the Constitution, like providing for the common defense," argues Schoenfeld.

The lawsuit contends that Monteilh's FBI handlers told him to collect e-mail address, phone numbers, and other pertinent information about Muslims, and "explicitly told Monteilh that Islam was a threat to America's national security."

Legal experts say the lawsuit could succeed if the ACLU proves that the FBI targeted Muslims for their religious beliefs. But resting an entire case on a paid informant – with a criminal record, in Monteilh's case – can be tricky. "Using informants is an unsavory business, and informants often lie,'' John Baker, a Louisiana State University law professor, tells the Washington Post. "How trustworthy is his information? No one knows.''

Schoenfeld adds that lawyers could also parse the allegation that the FBI asked Monteilh to look for worshippers who were particularly devout. "What does that mean?" he says. "Are they devout in trying to memorize the Koran, or are they devout in preaching a political brand of Islam? That could be legitimate for the the FBI to investigate."

"Nobody objects" to the FBI investigating "when there's actual probable cause," says Hooper, "but to just say, 'go into these various mosques and see what you can dig up' – and even suggest to people that they should engage in criminal activity – that is something that is way beyond the pale."

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