Feds: Probe of Nation of Islam violated rules
December 16, 2009 9:55 PM | 10 Comments | UPDATED STORY
The Department of Homeland Security issued but then recalled a 2007 intelligence analysis about the Nation of Islam after deciding that the document broke rules on intelligence activity in the U.S., officials said Wednesday.
Internal DHS documents reveal that intelligence chiefs found that analysts "unintentionally and inadvertently" violated rules governing the collection, retention and distribution of information concerning "U.S. persons and organizations."
The apparent error took place during the Bush administration, an agency spokesman said Wednesday, adding that steps have been taken to ensure it does not happen again.
"DHS has implemented a strong and rigorous system of safeguards and oversight to ensure similar products are neither created nor distributed," said Matthew Chandler, a spokesman for the agency. "DHS is fully committed to securing the nation from terrorist attacks and other threats, and we take very seriously our responsibility to protect the civil rights and liberties of the American people while fulfilling this mission."
The 2007 analysis was titled "Nation of Islam: Uncertain Leadership Succession Poses Risk," according to DHS documents released Wednesday as the result of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy group.
At the time, Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan had ceded control to an executive board and gone into seclusion to recover from complications of prostate cancer treatment.
He remains active, though his exact role in the Chicago-based group is unclear. Nation of Islam officials did not return calls for comment.
After the analysis came out, a subsequent review found the analysis had violated internal intelligence guidelines that protect civil liberties and govern the collection and retention of information on the Nation of Islam and other "U.S. persons," a supervisory official wrote.
"The intelligence note on the Nation of Islam should not have been written," the official wrote. "The organization -- despite its highly volatile and extreme rhetoric -- has neither advocated violence nor engaged in violence." The official stressed that the violation had not been intentional and that during more than two years, this was the first among thousands of intelligence analyses about which questions had been raised.
A Columbia University researcher who focuses on the Nation of Islam said the revelation recalled FBI probes in the 1960s and 1970s.
The U.S. government has long been interested in leaders of the religious movement that melds black nationalism with the Islamic faith, said Zaheer Ali. "As a historian, it's not surprising that the federal agencies under a new name -- in this case 'Homeland Security' -- would be so interested."
While no investigation has produced evidence suggesting the Nation of Islam poses a threat, such concerns linger, he said.
"In the minds of many, Islam poses a threat. Black people pose a threat. And the combination of black people and Islam pose a threat in the imagination of people," Ali said. "I don't think our intelligence community is immune to these kinds of perceptions."
The analysis under scrutiny was prepared in October 2007 by the Office of Intelligence and Analysis of the Department of Homeland Security, according to agency officials.
That office acts in cases involving domestic security as a conduit for the flow of intelligence between federal agencies -- principally the FBI -- and state and local law enforcement authorities.
DHS intelligence personnel in that office routinely write analyses based on information gathered by other agencies, but do not engage in intelligence collection in the field, officials said.
The intelligence and analysis note was distributed by e-mail to 482 recipients, including federal intelligence officials, congressional staff and "at least one state government entity and one educational institution," a DHS report said, without naming them.
Immediately after the note about the Nation of Islam was sent, the office's intelligence oversight officer and its associate general counsel "expressed concerns" about its "content and dissemination," documents said.
DHS intelligence officials contacted the recipients and asked them to delete the note, the documents say.
Tribune reporter Manya A. Brachear contributed to this report from Chicago.