By Dan Levine
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - U.S. civil liberties advocates said on Tuesday the FBI had engaged in secretly collecting intelligence about Muslims in the San Francisco Bay area in recent years, including details about a sermon delivered at a mosque.
The American Civil Liberties Union called for an inquiry into the FBI's data collection, citing investigative practices from between 2004 and 2008 that it said raised the possibility of privacy violations.
The FBI defended its actions, saying the information in question was gathered as part of authorized law-enforcement activities, some intended to bolster ties with the Muslim community.
Police monitoring of Muslim organizations has been a concern across the country. According to reports by the Associated Press, the New York Police Department kept tabs on Muslim neighborhoods in New York and surrounding areas by sending undercover officers into mosques, meetings of college campus groups and local businesses, and keeping records of what they found.
The ACLU said records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request showed FBI agents visited the Seaside Mosque in northern California five times in 2005. Government personnel documented the subject of a sermon and discussions about a property purchase for a new mosque.
The FBI also met with representatives of a Turkish-oriented non-profit group called Bay Area Cultural Connections and used one meeting participant's cellphone number to search Department of Motor Vehicle records and obtain detailed information about him.
"By exploiting the good faith of Muslim groups and their members, the FBI is undermining community support for the government's legitimate law enforcement activities," Mike German, the ACLU's senior policy counsel and a former FBI agent, said in a statement.
The FBI labeled information collected from its "mosque outreach" program as "positive intelligence" and disseminated it to other agencies, "placing the people and organizations involved at risk of greater law enforcement scrutiny as potential national security threats," the ACLU said in a statement.
"The FBI is casting a cloud of suspicion on American Muslim religious organizations based on their faith alone, which raises grave constitutional concerns," Julia Harumi Mass, an ACLU staff lawyer, said.
FBI Assistant Director Michael Kortan responded that some of the information was collected through FBI activities designed to strengthen its relationships in the community.
"Since that time, the FBI has formalized its community relations program to emphasize a greater distinction between outreach and operational activities," Kortan said in a statement.
(Reporting By Dan Levine; Editing by Steve Gorman, Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)