Federal law enforcement officials said Friday that FBI agents have secretly monitored radiation levels at mosques, businesses and homes for several years in large cities, including Los Angeles, to determine whether radioactive, or “dirty,” bombs were being assembled.
The officials said no suspicious radiation levels have been found.
The disclosure, following the revelation a week ago that the government has secretly spied on U.S. citizens without court permission, angered some U.S. Muslim leaders. They cited a Supreme Court ruling three months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in which the justices rejected such government monitoring.
“All Americans should be concerned about the apparent trend toward a two-tiered system of justice, with full rights for most citizens and another, diminished set for Muslims,” said Nihad Awad, an official of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil liberties group.
But Justice Department officials said the monitoring was lawful. They said investigators used special equipment to gauge radiation levels at homes, businesses, warehouses and centers of some Muslim groups, and that the testing was sometimes carried out in or near parking lots and driveways -- areas the government believes to be public property. The equipment also checked for chemical weapons.
They said the testing was still taking place. It was first reported Friday by U.S. News & World Report.
“This is being done in a manner that protects U.S. constitutional rights,” said Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman. “FBI agents do not intrude across any constitutionally protected areas without proper legal authority.”
After the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, federal officials began monitoring Muslim groups’ activities to determine whether they were planning attacks.
They apprehended Jose Padilla, a Muslim from Chicago, as he returned to the United States, allegedly to scout out targets for a “dirty bomb.”
“The U.S. government is very concerned and has been very concerned over the past three years with a growing body of sensitive reporting that continues to show Al Qaeda’s clear intention to obtain and ultimately use chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-energy explosives in attacks against America,” Roehrkasse said.
“With this in mind, the FBI is part of an interagency team conducting passive operations in publicly accessible areas to detect the presence of radioactive materials in the air,” he said.
Roehrkasse and other federal law enforcement officials said the agents had targeted sites in and near several of the nation’s largest cities, including Los Angeles, Washington, New York and Chicago.
The monitoring program was also used near other potential targets, including the 2004 political conventions.
“For every single national event, we had these measures deployed,” he said. “It’s one of many layers we have in this country. This is basically what we do. This is what homeland security is all about.”
Another federal source, who asked not to be identified because the program has been secret, said government lawyers reviewed the process and found it legal for the tests to proceed without agents first seeking court authorization.
The tests are frequent and could pose grave logistical problems if court permission had to be routinely sought, he said.
“The FBI believes it has the legal authority,” the official said. “A parking lot or a driveway is not necessarily private property, and our equipment is not intrusive.”
But Awad and other Muslim leaders at the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations said the monitoring fit a pattern of spying on U.S. citizens without first obtaining a court warrant.
“This disturbing revelation,” Awad said, “coupled with recent reports of domestic surveillance without warrant, could lead to the perception that we are no longer a nation ruled by law but instead one in which fear trumps constitutional rights.”
Awad and other Muslim officials pointed to a June 11, 2001, Supreme Court decision that found a similar monitoring program to be unlawful.
In that case, government agents used thermal imaging to determine whether marijuana was being grown inside a home in Florence, Ore. The imaging device detected infrared radiation inside the house similar to that from marijuana beds, and the homeowner, Danny Kyllo, was arrested. He challenged the legality of the search.
In a 5-4 Supreme Court decision written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court ruled that the test was an illegal search that violated the 4th Amendment.
“The surveillance is a search, and is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant,” Scalia wrote.
Justice John Paul Stevens, writing a dissent, said no privacy was compromised and that the agents in Oregon gathered “information in the public domain” by operating the detection device outside the home.