DEARBORN, Mich. ― An FBI spy plane that circled over a Detroit suburb dozens of times this weekend was not targeting the local Muslim population or engaging in profiling of Arab Americans, an official assured concerned community leaders Wednesday.
The group’s emergency meeting with Paul Abbate, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit Field Office, was spurred by their worries after the Detroit News reported that a Cessna Skylane surveillance plane used in the federal agency’s investigations had made two trips over the metro area this weekend, each time making 19 circles around the same section of Dearborn.
The News said the flight data from FlightRadar24.com raises “questions about whether the FBI’s investigation is terror-related” as well as whether citizens’ privacy could be violated. Local Arab-American groups reacted quickly and negatively to the possibility of illegal profiling or mass surveillance.
Abbate countered that the planes’ use in lawful investigations of specific individuals is “strictly regulated.”
“Contrary to the suggestion of some recent media reporting, the FBI does not employ aviation assets to conduct mass surveillance nor to target specific communities,” he said in the statement released Wednesday. “Neither does the FBI monitor lawfully protected First Amendment activity.”
The local FBI office “is not aware of any specific or credible threats within the local Detroit Metropolitan area,” he stated. He did not comment on the purpose of the flights.
The News article follows a June Associated Press report on an FBI fleet of low-flying planes registered to fake companies, some with video and cellphone surveillance capability, that are used in investigations and have regularly flown over cities around the country. An FBI spokesman told the AP that the planes “are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance.”
“We’re not really concerned about the FBI doing their work,” Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News, said after a closed meeting held at the paper’s office. “We’re concerned about … the American people looking at the Dearborn area as a nest of terrorism.”
Dearborn is the cultural center of Arab-American life in Michigan and home to one of the largest Arab-American populations in the country. Siblani said the community still hasn’t gotten past the negative effects of a report from the Intercept last year ― disputed by authorities ― that Dearborn is second only to New York City in the concentration of people designated by the government as “known or suspected terrorists.”
Siblani and U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D), who also attended Wednesday’s meeting, separately fielded calls throughout the day from residents concerned about the supposed FBI surveillance.
Dingell compared attitudes toward Arab Americans to instances of extreme discrimination in the country’s history. “You remember what this country did during World War II with the Japanese, what we did with the McCarthy hearings. ... These are Americans who love this country, and we don’t talk enough about that.”
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan) on Feb. 28, 2014 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The leaders shared a worry that casting unearned suspicion on Dearborn residents only adds fuel to the fire for those with prejudices. Distrust of Islam has persisted in the last 15 years, with tensions coming out in disputes, such as residents of a Texas town attempting to block the creation of a Muslim cemetery.
Stereotypes based on some residents' heritage is nothing new for Dearborn, which has been given the moniker “Dearbornistan” by blogs that traffic in Islamophobia and use the city as an symbol of the “creeping” influence of Islam. A false rumor that the city operates under Sharia law frequently resurfaces, and pastors have come to the the city to hold anti-Islam rallies and to “save Muslim souls.”
Arab-American Civil Rights League Executive Director Nabih Ayad said Wednesday that Muslims’ negative experiences in the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks has taught them to be wary of law enforcement, and he contacted the U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Michigan about investigating the FBI’s flights over Dearborn. But overwhelmingly, he and others spoke of their confidence in Abbate, praising his transparency and trustworthiness over the last couple years and saying they were satisfied with his assurances.
“We asked them point-blank did they surveil our community, and the answer is, ‘No, we are not allowed to do that by the law and we did not do it,’” Siblani said. “The only thing that they could surveil here is falafel, shawarma. ... Dearborn is a place where people come and have fun.”
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