FBI tests radiation at U.S. Muslim sites

Officials call action legal, necessary for security

December 24, 2005|By RICHARD A. SERRANO | RICHARD A. SERRANO,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Federal law enforcement officials said yesterday that FBI agents have secretly monitored radiation levels at Islamic mosques, businesses and homes for several years in large cities, to determine whether nuclear or chemical bombs were being made.

The officials said no suspicious radiation had been found.

"All Americans should be concerned about the apparent trend toward a two-tiered system of justice, with full rights for most citizens and another diminished set for Muslims," said Nihad Award, an official of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation's largest Muslim civil liberties group.

But Justice Department officials said the monitoring was lawful. They said investigators' testing of radiation levels at homes, warehouses and religious centers of some Muslim groups was sometimes carried out in or near parking lots and driveways - areas the government considers public property.

They said the testing is still taking place. It was first reported yesterday by U.S. News & World Report.

"This is being done in a manner that protects U.S. constitutional rights," said Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman. "FBI agents do not intrude across any constitutionally protected areas without proper legal authority."

After the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, federal officials began monitoring Muslim groups' activities to determine whether they were planning attacks. They apprehended Jose Padilla, a Muslim from Chicago, as he returned to the United States allegedly to scout out targets.

"The U.S. government is very concerned and has been very concerned over the past three years with a growing body of sensitive reporting that continues to show al-Qaida's clear intention to obtain and ultimately use chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-energy explosives in attacks against America," Roehrkasse said.

"With this in mind, the FBI is part of an interagency team conducting passive operations in publicly accessible areas to detect the presence of radioactive materials in the air," he said.

Roehrkasse and other federal law enforcement officials said the agents had targeted mosques, warehouses, businesses and some homes in and near several large cities, including Los Angeles, Washington, New York and Chicago.

The monitoring program was also used near potential targets, including the 2004 political conventions and the Group of Eight summit of the leading industrial democracies that year, in Georgia.

"For every single national event, we had these measures deployed," he said.

Another federal source, who asked not to be identified because the program has been secret, said government lawyers had reviewed the process and found it legal for the tests to proceed without agents first seeking court authorization.

The tests are frequent and could pose grave logistical problems if court permission had to be routinely sought, he said.

"The FBI believes it has the legal authority," he said. "A parking lot or a driveway is not necessarily private property, and our equipment is not intrusive."

But Awad and other Muslim leaders at the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations said the monitoring fit a pattern of spying on U.S. citizens without getting a court warrant.

"This disturbing revelation," Awad said, "coupled with recent reports of domestic surveillance without warrant, could lead to the perception that we are no longer a nation ruled by law but instead one in which fear trumps constitutional rights."

Awad and other Muslim officials pointed to a June 11, 2001, Supreme Court decision that found a similar testing program to be unlawful.

In that case, government agents used thermal imaging to determine whether marijuana was being grown inside a home in Florence, Ore. The imaging device detected infrared radiation inside the house similar to that from marijuana beds, and the homeowner, Danny Kyllo, was arrested. He challenged the legality of the search.

In a 5-4 Supreme Court decision written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court ruled that the test was an illegal search that violated the Fourth Amendment right to privacy.

"The surveillance is a search, and is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant," Scalia wrote.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing a dissent, said no privacy was compromised..

Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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