Supreme Court to hear arguments on FBI's surveillance of mosques The argument will focus on whether this case can move forward at all because the government argues that for it to produce any of the evidence gathered 15 years ago would jeopardize national security.

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Supreme Court to hear arguments on FBI's surveillance of mosques

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in a case involving an FBI undercover operation at a mosque in California. A group of Muslim men are suing the FBI in a class-action lawsuit over a nearly yearlong surveillance program. The operation, at least publicly, yielded no results. And as NPR's Nina Totenberg reports, it ended up being a huge embarrassment to the bureau.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In hindsight, the covert operation unfolded like some sort of dark comedy, as Ira Glass reported on This American Life.

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IRA GLASS: It is a cautionary tale. It is a case where we can watch everything go wrong.

TOTENBERG: It all started in 2006 in Orange County, Calif. At that point, a homegrown terrorist on the FBI's most wanted list had attended services at an Orange County mosque. Relations between the Muslim community and the FBI were so fraught that the head of the Los Angeles FBI office, Steven Tidwell, decided he should do a town hall at a mosque that he picked - the Islamic Center of Irvine. At the meeting, Tidwell repeatedly sought to assure the audience that the FBI was not secretly monitoring them.

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STEVEN TIDWELL: What I'm saying - FBI - we will tell you we're coming for the very reason we don't want you to think you're being monitored.

TOTENBERG: But even as he was saying that, the FBI was recruiting an undercover informant to infiltrate the mosque and catch anyone who might be recruiting and training terrorists. The informant was named Craig Monteilh, a trainer at a local gym who had a checkered past. He posed as a Muslim convert at the Irvine mosque, one of the largest in Southern California. As Sam Black reported for This American Life...

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SAM BLACK: The FBI later confirmed in court that Craig was an undercover informant. A district attorney also stated in court that Craig did work with agent Kevin Armstrong and that Craig had given the FBI, quote, "very, very valuable information."

TOTENBERG: The bureau has also confirmed that Monteilh secretly recorded tons of audio and video of the people he was making friends with at the mosque. Probing for radical sentiments, he started pummeling his new friends with questions about jihad, making some of them very uneasy. Eventually, he would do much more, as he later told This American Life.

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CRAIG MONTEILH: I said, we should carry out a terrorist attack in this country because I'm tired of just staying around doing nothing. We should bomb something.

TOTENBERG: When Monteilh, said that to two of the guys he'd been hanging out with, they freaked out. But they didn't know who to call or how to report Monteilh. So they contacted Hussam Ayloush, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Southern California.

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HUSSAM AYLOUSH: I told them, calm down. You're not responsible for anything. You're doing the right thing. You're calling the authorities. So even if the guy is planning on anything, you have nothing to worry about. You're not accomplices.

TOTENBERG: Now, Ayloush was the person who'd arranged that earlier townhall with Agent Tidwell. So he called Tidwell. But Tidwell, after thanking Ayloush for the tip, did an odd thing. He told Ayloush to call the local police and didn't even ask for the alleged terrorist's name. Again, reporter Sam Black.

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BLACK: Tidwell wouldn't speak to me for this story, so I don't know what he thought when his own informant was reported to him as a terrorist. But not long after this phone call, the FBI launched an investigation into Craig, which, no matter how you look at it, was a very strange undertaking. FBI agents were going around asking questions about an FBI informant, treating him as an actual suspect they were investigating.

TOTENBERG: The Muslim community came to believe that this was just another ploy, a way to leverage people and get them to inform on others. And three of the people who were spied upon sued the FBI. The lead plaintiff is Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, who in 2006 was the imam at the Orange County Islamic Foundation.

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YASSIR FAZAGA: He had a camera, taking pictures of the faces of the people who are coming in to the mosque, recording, meeting people, literally instigating, enticing them to become terrorists. So No. 1 is we believe that we were targeted not because of anything other than our religious beliefs.

TOTENBERG: Fazaga, who is a therapist, is also incensed that he found in his office a remote control that he says turned out to be a recording device left there by Monteilh, a device that for a month recorded the personal and confidential conversations Fazaga had with his patients. Ultimately, Fazaga wants the FBI to destroy all of this information, as he told NPR in an interview last week.

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FAZAGA: You couldn't go into a Catholic church into the confession room and, you know, put bugs there because that would just be a violation of these people's rights and the religious freedom. Well, that applies to people who are in therapy, as well. It applies to people in a mosque, a synagogue, a church, any place of worship.

TOTENBERG: There may be some justification for some of the government's actions in this case, namely who, if anyone, it was investigating. But we will not hear about it at the Supreme Court today. The argument instead will focus basically on whether this case can move forward at all because the government argues that for it to produce any of the evidence gathered 15 years ago would jeopardize national security. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

MARTIN: The episode of This American Life from 2012 will air again later this month.

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