A federal judge ruled Wednesday that a group of Muslim activists and organizations cannot review additional records of FBI inquiries into their activities but berated the government for misleading the court about the existence of the files.
U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney said six Muslim groups and five individuals who sued in 2007 to gain access to records they believed the FBI was keeping do not have a right to much of the information because of national security concerns.
The ruling came amid a nearly five-year battle by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Muslim activists to obtain files they believe would show the FBI has been unlawfully targeting Muslims in Southern California.
Carney reached his decision after privately reviewing more than 100 pages of documents to ensure the government had complied with the Freedom of Information Act in denying access to plaintiffs.
In his 18-page ruling, Carney declined to reveal the number or nature of the records the FBI kept on the plaintiffs, citing national security concerns.
He also reached the conclusion that federal government attorneys misled the court about the existence of the documents.
"The government's representations were then, and remain today, blatantly false," Carney wrote. "The government cannot, under any circumstance, affirmatively mislead the court."
Such "deception" could impede the court from performing its constitutional responsibilities, he added.
No one was immediately available to comment at the Department of Justice.
Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, was disappointed in the ruling.
He said he feels the need to constantly look over his shoulder, especially now that the court has confirmed the government has been keeping files on the plaintiffs that will not be revealed.
"I know that I am under surveillance, I just want to know the reasons for that and I want to know whether that is warranted or not, I want to know if it is legal or not," Syed said.
The case is one of several that highlight widespread concern among Muslim-Americans that the FBI has been spying on them.
Such concerns were heightened in 2009 when an FBI agent testified in court that an informant had been planted at an Islamic Center in Orange County. The informant provided information about the brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden's bodyguard, who was arrested on charges of lying on his citizenship application. The government later dropped the charges.
In 2007, the Muslim activists and organizations, including the Islamic Shura Council and Council on American-Islamic Relations, sued the FBI alleging the agency failed to turn over records they had requested a year earlier related to their own activities.
The FBI released some records to the plaintiffs but redacted large portions of the documents, claiming the material was beyond the scope of their Freedom of Information Act request.
In 2009, Carney told the FBI to turn over the files to him so he could determine whether there was a valid reason for the redactions. He also ordered the agency to expand its records search for CAIR and its executive director for the greater Los Angeles area since only four pages of files had been produced.
Carney reviewed those files and wrote an order that was going to be made public, but was blocked by a federal government appeal.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that Carney should rewrite his order to remove references considered sensitive by the federal government.
Ahilan Arulanantham, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Southern California, said he was disappointed by the judge's ruling and concerned about the government's behavior.
"We're deeply concerned that the government appears to believe that they can mislead the courts when the American public seeks information about the government's activities," he said.