Supreme Court Takes up Case About FBI Sting Operation Targeting California Mosques

June 7, 2021 Updated: June 7, 2021

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday granted the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ (FBI) petition to review whether it was lawful for the federal agency to infiltrate and collect information from a dozen mosques in Southern California over a decade ago.

The case was filed by the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Council on American-Islamic Relations on behalf of three Muslim men, who alleged that Muslims in their communities had been wrongly targeted by the FBI solely because of their religious beliefs.

According to the complaint, during 14 months between 2006 and 2007, the FBI spent $177,000 to pay an undercover informant named Craig Monteilh to regularly attend the Islamic Center of Irvine (ICOI) and several other Orange, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino County mosques. As part of the FBI’s counter-terrorist effort, Monteilh met with mosque members while wearing hidden recording devices, talked to them about Islamic extremism, encouraged them to visit jihadist websites, and collected their e-mail address, phone numbers, and information about their personal lives.

The sting operation ended in 2007, when Monteilh was reported to the Irvine police and the FBI after he told ICOI members that he believed it was “his duty as a Muslim to take violence actions” and that he “had access to weapons.” No terrorism or criminal charges were filed as a result of the operation.

In 2011, the three Muslims filed a federal class action against the FBI, seeking unspecified amount in damages and the destruction or return of information Monteilh had collected. A federal district court in 2012 dismissed most of the claims of the lawsuit, although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held in 2019 that the plaintiffs could challenge what they considered unlawful electronic surveillance using procedures outlined in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

After the Ninth Circuit refused to rehear the case, the FBI petitioned (pdf) the Supreme Court to take it up, saying it raises “exceptionally important questions concerning the Executive Branch’s responsibility under the Constitution to protect the national security of the United States.”

“At a minimum, there exists no clear statement … in FISA, that Congress intended to bring about such a startling change in the Executive’s authority to protect national-security information from compelled disclosure in litigation,” the FBI’s December 2020 petition states.

Jeffrey Wall, the Trump administration’s acting solicitor general, also weighed in, saying in December 2020 that the Ninth Circuit’s decision could transform a limited provision of FISA into a mechanism that could undermine the Executive Branch’s ability to safeguard national security information.

The case will likely be argued sometime this fall.