WASHINGTON — Homeland security officials improperly gathered intelligence on the Nation of Islam, a black Muslim group, but government rules were “unintentionally and inadvertently violated” and only publicly available information was collected, according to documents made public Wednesday.
Internal correspondence shows the 2007 report – titled “Nation of Islam: Uncertain Leadership Succession Poses Risks” – was created by an intelligence group working within the Homeland Security Department.
Hours after the report was issued, officials recalled it, deciding the report violated intelligence rules against collecting or disseminating information on U.S. citizens for an extended period of time. It had been disseminated widely over the Internet to numerous federal agencies, state and local law enforcement, several congressional committees, intelligence agencies and parts of the private sector, a reviewing officer found.
One official wrote, “the organization despite its highly volatile and extreme rhetoric has neither advocated violence nor engaged in violence” and should not have been the subject of intelligence gathering. The documents were released Wednesday as part of a Freedom of Information lawsuit, but the DHS report itself was not released nor were any examples of what the analysts considered extreme rhetoric.
L.A. Broughton, an oversight official at Homeland Security, wrote in a 2008 follow-up memo that the document “discussed the possible succession of leadership of (the Nation of Islam) and the direction the group may take depending on who becomes the new leader, their personal philosophy and their ability to keep the organization from further splintering.”
DHS spokesman Matthew Chandler said that since the report was created, the agency “has implemented a strong and rigorous system of safeguards and oversight to ensure similar products are neither created nor distributed.”
Messages left Wednesday for top officials in the Chicago-based movement were not immediately returned.
The Obama administration has pledged to be more open than its predecessor, and in the past year has released numerous previously classified details of the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism programs, including how CIA interrogators used harsh techniques on detainees.
The latest release of government documents were the result of separate Freedom of Information lawsuits from two civil liberties groups – the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union.
David Sobel, the EFF’s senior counsel, said, “There remains a lot of material that continues to be withheld. To the extent that today’s disclosures indicate a new approach to the Freedom of Information Act, we welcome it.”
Even among the pages released, there were many sections blacked out or otherwise redacted, including a section about a congressional spending bill marked “talking points” that is entirely redacted.
Other documents show that an intelligence worker at the Defense Department claimed senior military officials provided false information to Congress in 2002, when lawmakers were conducting a joint inquiry into al-Qaida and the 2001 terror attacks.
The papers do not say what the intelligence worker claimed was said to Congress that was false, or say what became of a planned inquiry into the claim.
In another incident, workers at a counterterrorism center near Washington, D.C. were verbally chastised in 2007 for circulating a picture of three Guantanamo Bay detainees described by the government as “high-value” terror suspects, in an e-mail with a mocking description of the men. The mocking description was not included in the released document.
Included among the newly released documents was a Dec. 21, 2001 memo by Justice Department lawyer John Yoo saying that several criminal charges could be brought against John Walker Lindh, the U.S. citizen captured in Afghanistan who is now serving a 20-year sentence for aiding the Taliban.
“He could be charged in federal court with treason, killing a federal employee, assisting a terrorist organization or unlawfully participating in foreign affairs,” Yoo wrote. “In addition, Mr. Walker could face prosecution in a court martial for either aiding the enemy or for war crimes.”
Lindh pleaded guilty in 2002 to lesser offenses, including carrying weapons against U.S. forces.
The data released Wednesday also includes 2002 correspondence with then-CIA director George Tenet over news organizations’ concerns in the wake of the killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
The American Society of News Editors asked Tenet to issue a firm public statement that the agency did not allow its operatives to post as journalists. Tenet replied in a letter that it has been longstanding CIA policy not to use American journalists as agents or American news organizations for cover.
In a separate letter, a senior Washington Post editor told Tenet he’d heard U.S. military or intelligence officers may have pretended to work for the paper while operating in Afghanistan.
CIA spokesman George Little said Wednesday: “This did not happen, as the Washington Post was told at the time.”