Reporter Fights for Records on Arab-American Spying

CHICAGO (CN) – A journalist and documentary filmmaker sued the Justice Department for the release of FBI records about a surveillance program she says targeted Arab-American communities outside Chicago before 9/11.

Assia Boundaoui filed a federal lawsuit against the FBI and Department of Justice in Chicago on Monday, claiming they have refused to hand over records about a particular investigation in violation of the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

“Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Arab American neighborhoods just outside of Chicago were subject to widespread surveillance as part of one of the largest anti-terrorism investigations ever conducted in the United States before 9-11,” the lawsuit states. “That investigation, which was code-named ‘Operation Vulgar Betrayal,’ is now the subject of plaintiff’s investigative journalism and a feature-length documentary film entitled, ‘The Feeling of Being Watched.’ The documentary, which is scheduled for release in 2018, follows plaintiff’s journey to uncover why her community fell under blanket government surveillance, and why the community feels even more targeted today.”

Boundaoui says she filed a FOIA request last September seeking the expedited and free release of the FBI’s Operation Vulgar Betrayal criminal investigation files to “inform the public about Homeland Decurity policies and enforcement methods of terrorism investigations in the 1990s and 2000s.”

Her requests for expedited processing and a fee waiver were both denied, and the DOJ said it would take more than three years to process the documents she asked for, according to the complaint.

Boundaoui claims the government told her she failed to demonstrate “that the requested information is in the public interest” because it “would not contribute to the understanding of a reasonably broad audience of persons interested in the subject.”

The journalist and documentarian filed an administrative appeal of the denial of her requests last October, but her appeal was rejected on the grounds that she didn’t prove that the requested records are a matter of “current exigency to the American public,” according to the lawsuit.

The DOJ did not respond to her fee-waiver appeal but said it would take about three years and three months to process the documents sought, Boundaoui alleges.

Boundaoui claims that she was told her FOIA request could be placed on a “moderate track” processing schedule if she limits it to just three out of at least 19 files, which would take about seven months to produce.

The journalist says the DOJ has wrongfully delayed the release of the records she requested and that there is a “substantial public interest” in their disclosure.

“Members of the Arab and Muslim American communities affected directly by the surveillance, and Americans of all backgrounds, have an urgent need to understand the broad scope of these investigations spurred by policies that profiled entire communities based on religion and ethnicity,” the lawsuit states. “The harm these decades-long investigations have had on these neighborhoods is profound. They have transformed communities into places where neighbors distrust one another, where citizens censor themselves for fear of government monitoring, and where people live with an unhealthy dose of fear and paranoia. The records will help cast light on fundamental rights to privacy in the United States.”

Boundaoui wants a judge to declare that the DOJ and FBI have violated the FOIA and to order the release of all requested records on an expedited basis at no cost. She is represented by Patrick Croke of Sidley Austin in Chicago.

The DOJ did not immediately respond Wednesday to an email request for comment. The FBI declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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