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"The Convert" Update

Aug 16, 2012

This week’s episode, "The Convert," was about FBI informant Craig Monteilh, who went undercover in southern California’s Muslim community to try to find people who were recruiting and training terrorists. Craig’s operation, which took place in 2006 and 2007, was called Operation Flex.

On Tuesday, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit that was filed against the FBI as a result of Operation Flex. Several people Craig spied on — including Yasser AbdelRahim, who was featured in our episode — sued the Bureau, claiming it had violated their first amendment rights during Operation Flex by targeting them because of their religious beliefs, and that they’d been subjected to searches and monitoring without a warrant.

In response, the government asserted the state secrets privilege, arguing that the suit shouldn’t be allowed to move forward because it would force the FBI to reveal classified information and would put national security at risk.

U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney sided with the government. After reviewing confidential statements from top FBI officials, Carney wrote in his decision that allowing the suit to proceed could "significantly compromise national security."

It was a difficult decision, according to Carney. He compared himself to an ancient Greek hero:

In struggling with this conflict, the Court is reminded of the classic dilemma of Odysseus, who faced the challenge of navigating his ship through a dangerous passage, flanked by a voracious six-headed monster, on the one side, and a deadly whirlpool, on the other. Odysseus opted to pass by the monster and risk a few of his individual sailors, rather than hazard the loss of his entire ship to the sucking whirlpool. Similarly, the proper application of the state secrets privilege may unfortunately mean the sacrifice of individual liberties for the sake of national security.

We reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU, and the Council on American Islamic Relations, CAIR, who are representing the people Craig spied on. Peter Bibring, an attorney at the ACLU, sent us this statement:

As troubling as we find the implications that it might be okay to feed the Muslim community to a monster, it's a mistake to think that closing courts to claims of religious discrimination in the name of national security affects only the few who bring those cases. The government that refuses to let courts determine whether it has violated our most basic Constitutional values because the whole matter is supposedly secret steers our nation into much more dangerous waters. It's wrongheaded, in the name of defending freedom, to give up its hallmarks, including the basic balance of powers our founders so carefully set.

The judge’s dismissal means that the case against the FBI cannot move forward. But the plaintiffs are also suing individual FBI agents who were involved in Operation Flex, and Carney did allow certain charges against them to stand. Bibring said the ACLU and CAIR plan to appeal the judge’s decision.