Too often since the 9/11 attacks, government counter-terrorism measures have targeted groups of people based simply on their religion or race. Effective counter-terrorism, however, requires focusing on those individuals whom there is reason to believe may be involved in terrorist activities. The Center and its partners opposed these discriminatory measures and many have been ended. Presidents Bush and Obama have condemned religious bigotry and Attorney General Holder has spoken out strongly against racial profiling and religious bigotry. Nevertheless, unconstitutional profiling persists, by police claiming to enforce immigration laws and in secret surveillance programs.
In the days and weeks immediately following the 9/11 attacks, the FBI and the Justice Department secretly arrested hundreds of individuals, virtually all of whom were Arab or Muslim. The government admitted at the time that in virtually all instances it had no evidence of terrorist activity by these individuals; the basis for picking them up was simply their perceived religion or ethnicity. The Center led the opposition to the dragnet searches and arrests of these innocent individuals and filed the first lawsuit post 9/11 challenging the government's counterterrorism policies. See Secret Arrests for more information.
In July 2002, Kate Martin and Jean Abi-Nader of the Arab-American Institute published an op-ed in The Washington Post calling on the Senate Judiciary
“to question Attorney General John Ashcroft closely today as to whether his crucial terrorism investigation is really aimed at finding terrorists or simply at sweeping up thousands of Americans in an ineffective, and probably unconstitutional dragnet.
Rather than build investigations based on what is known about al Qaeda and the hijackers, the attorney general has directed the roundup and jailing of hundreds of individuals and compilation of dossiers on thousands of individuals and groups - a dragnet targeted at the Arab American, Muslim and immigrant communities. While no one of any rational persuasion denies that Arab Muslims males perpetrated the horrific terrorist acts of 9/11, that fact hardly serves as justification for the racial profiling that characterizes initiatives coming out of the administration."
Counterterrorism has also been the rationale for targeting immigrants and ratcheting up the imprisonment and deportation of thousands of individuals who lived and worked in the United States even though they had no connection to terrorism. Since 2001, the Center has raised the question whether Justice Department policies were attempts to intimidate immigrants from the Middle East into leaving the country, pointing out that while doing so serves no counterterrorism purpose, it would contradict the basic principle of our society, equal treatment before the law. See also Center testimony in 2003. This year may finally see meaningful immigration reform which will end profiling by local police departments as well as thousands of unfair deportations.
For information on the guidelines that govern FBI investigations, which were intended to prevent unconstitutional profiling and surveillance, see FBI Guidelines Governing Investigations.