By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Muslim rights group criticized a federal judge on Wednesday, complaining he had compared the civil liberties of Muslim Americans to a "hideous sea monster" while tossing out a lawsuit over the infiltration of California mosques by an FBI informant.
U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney dismissed the lawsuit on Tuesday, which charged that the undercover FBI informant had violated civil liberties of U.S. Muslims by spying on them, ruling that allowing the case to proceed could risk disclosure of government secrets.
In his 36-page order, Carney invoked the fictional Greek hero Odysseus, who was forced to sail his ship between a six-headed sea monster and a dangerous whirlpool during an epic voyage home from the Trojan War.
"Odysseus opted to pass by the monster and risk a few of his individual sailors, rather than hazard the loss of his entire ship to the sucking whirlpool," Carney wrote. "Similarly, the proper application of the state secrets privilege may unfortunately mean the sacrifice of individual liberties for the sake of national security."
Carney allowed the case to go forward only against five current or former agents named as individual defendants, who the plaintiffs claim violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Plaintiffs attorneys have said they will appeal.
"Our civil liberties are not a hideous sea monster, but they are instead the most stalwart defense against the real threats of tyranny and oppression," Ameena Mirza Qazi, deputy executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said in a written statement.
The lawsuit, jointly filed by CAIR and the American Civil Liberties Union last year in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, said the FBI sent undercover informant Craig Monteilh into Orange County mosques to collect personal information on hundreds, or possibly thousands, of Muslims.
According to the suit, Monteilh took hundreds of hours of surreptitious video and audio recordings of religious lectures, classes, cultural events and other meetings in 2006 and 2007 as part of a counterterrorism investigation, known as "Operation Flex," that did not produce a single conviction.
"It is deeply troubling that the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have more access to judicial review than U.S. citizens," plaintiffs attorney Reem Salahi said. "Where plaintiffs and the informant himself describe act after act of illegal government surveillance, the government should not be allowed to skirt liability by using its wild card -- state secrets."
The FBI and U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on Wednesday. The FBI has acknowledged in court documents that Monteilh was used as a confidential informant during the operation but denies any wrongdoing, saying it took reasonable measures to investigate credible evidence of possible terrorist activity.
Carney wrote in his ruling that he did not reach the decision lightly and conducted a careful review of classified government filings with "a skeptical eye" before ruling.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and M.D. Golan)