Q&A: Filmmaker on FBI surveillance of her neighborhood and the fight for the records that prove it

A still from Assia Boundaoui's film, The Feeling of Being Watched. Courtesy of Assia Boundaoui.

Growing up, Assia Boundaoui felt like she was being watched. She wasn’t the only one. Just about everyone she knew in her Arab-American community of Bridgeview, just south of Chicago, suspected that the US government was spying on them.

Even after Boundaoui left Bridgeview in 2010—to attend New York University for her master’s degree in journalism, and then to travel the world reporting for NPR, the BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN—the 31-year-old journalist and filmmaker says she has never been able to shake the feeling that someone spied on her family, her friends, and her neighbors.

Four years ago, Boundaoui returned home to investigate whether the Bridgeview community had been under government surveillance in those years, as many had suspected. She found evidence of a massive pre-9/11 FBI counterterrorism investigation, conducted during the 1990s and 2000s and code-named “Operation Vulgar Betrayal.” The operation had been mentioned in previous news reports, but often with few details.

Boundaoui has tried to get the Department of Justice to release information about the surveillance operation, which is the subject of her first feature-length film, The Feeling of Being Watched. A trailer for the film includes footage of Bridgeview residents recounting suspicious smoke-detector installations and the sound of a “click” when they used the phone. “We’ve just discovered,” says Boundaoui, narrating the trailer, “that these stories of surveillance are true.”

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“Our parents were always warning us kids about the strange cars parked around the mosque, and twice in my memory we got a knock on our front door from federal agents who questioned my parents about their friends in the community, about donations they had made to charities, and recorded everything,” she tells CJR. “After the FBI visits, my mom regularly checked under the kitchen table and chairs for bugs. She felt that FBI agents were following her to the library, watching her behind newspapers, and started to suspect that some of our neighbors might be informants.”

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In September 2016, using the Freedom of Information Act, Boundaoui requested that the Justice Department provide her with documents from Operation Vulgar Betrayal. She also asked that the DOJ expedite the release of all documents and waive all fees associated with the request. The DOJ declined, telling Boundaoui that it would need three years to provide her with the requested documents, which totaled more than 30,000 pages. The Justice Department also told Boundaoui that the records “would not contribute to the understanding of a reasonably broad audience of persons interested in the subject,” and questioned Boundaoui’s credentials and “expertise,” which government agencies consider when deciding whether to waive fees.

In late June, Boundaoui filed a lawsuit to compel the FBI and Justice Department to provide her the requested documents “on an expedited basis at no cost.” The suit also requests that the court “enter an injunction prohibiting the Defendant from continuing to withhold the requested records from the public.” The first hearing in the case is scheduled for later this month in US District Court in Northern Illinois.

Boundaoui spoke with CJR about the surveillance program and its impact on her neighborhood and on her as a journalist. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

 

The name of the operation, “vulgar betrayal,” is chilling because of its racist and xenophobic implications. What went through your mind when you first uncovered it?

Yeah, it’s pretty wild. I remember first coming across it in an old newspaper article and my mouth just hung open. I thought, how are you going to name an investigation “vulgar betrayal” before you’ve even investigated to determine whether or not these people are traitors? The name implies that the agents working on the case did not have any presumption of our innocence; it implies that they saw Muslim identity as a proxy for criminality. How can you investigate something fairly and justly if you’ve begun with an assumption of guilt? What of our constitutional right to be seen as innocent until proven otherwise? The particular adjective “vulgar” underscores to me that we were seen by these agents not as Americans, but as foreign others, and as such our alleged “treachery” was that much more loathsome.

A still from Assia Boundaoui’s film, The Feeling of Being Watched. Courtesy of Assia Boundaoui.

 

How did you uncover that there was an operation in Bridgeview?

The fact of the matter is that so much of the evidence I was looking for was hiding in plain sight. It’s just that no one had cared to really look into it before. There were references to the investigation in local news reports as early as 1999. When my team and I started digging online, we came across a random 9/11 conspiracy website with nearly 1,000 pages of declassified records obtained via FOIA about Operation Vulgar Betrayal. I found out that it was the largest domestic terrorism investigation conducted before 9/11, and it was focused on my neighborhood. In the late ’80s, the FBI began opening investigations into every major American-Muslim organization, mosque, and school in the country. They suspected these institutions were being used as covers for funding terrorism. The secret FBI fishing-expeditions that started a decade before 9/11 later turned into public indictments and prosecutions in the “War on Terror.”

It turned out that these first 1,000 pages were just the tip of the iceberg. I went on to file more than a dozen FOIA requests to compel the government to release all documents related to Vulgar Betrayal and any files they have on my family or people in my community. After months of meeting bureaucratic resistance and hitting a wall in compelling the government to be transparent, I received a remarkable letter of admission from the FBI, stating the Bureau is releasing 33,120 records on the investigation targeting my neighborhood. To put that in some context, the number of records that the FBI released regarding COINTELPRO, which resulted in the landmark Congressional Church Commission, was 50,000 pages.

A few weeks after I receive this letter, I get a call from the FBI stating that my appeal to have these records expedited has been denied. Frustrated with the delays, my team and I filed a lawsuit in the Federal District Court of Illinois demanding the FBI release these records immediately. Our first hearing in the lawsuit is later this month.

 

What has been the reaction to your reporting?

In many cases, it just confirmed what other people have believed to be true for a long time; en masse, folks weren’t surprised. The surprising thing was the scale. Nearly every major Muslim organization and mosque in America was referenced in these documents as targets of suspicion and surveillance, and at least 35 mosques were listed by name. The scope was astounding to me, and came as a surprise to a lot of people in the community. Being the target of an investigation by the most powerful country in the world can be one of the most isolating and alienating experiences. Folks knowing that they weren’t alone, that they were caught up in a large net that targeted hundreds of American-Muslim individuals and institutions across the country, was validating in a sense. It was a moment of dark humor. People who were investigated with whom I shared my findings were like, “Oh, we’re in good company!”

 

In refusing to waive fees related to your FOIA request, DOJ essentially questioned your credentials as a journalist, saying that you did not demonstrate your “expertise.” That must have been a gut-punch.

I felt that the DOJ’s attempt to undermine my credibility as a journalist is just their lazy way of shirking their responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act to be transparent and to respect the public’s right to know. I feel strongly that not only do we have a constitutional right to our security of person and privacy, but we also have a right to know when the government has unwarrantedly violated that security and privacy. The FOIA law is a remarkable one; it’s one of the few ways we as citizens have the power to check the executive by demanding transparency. Surveillance gets its power from secrecy, and in the absence of light, impunity flourishes. This is why dragging these secret investigations  kicking and screaming into the light is so important. Truth is a precursor to justice.  

 

Why is it important to the American public, all of it and not just the Muslim community, to know about what happened in Bridgeview? DOJ claims there is no immediate public interest in this.

To date, the domestic “War on Terror,” which started long before 9/11 and targeted thousands of law-abiding American-Muslims across the country, is perceived by the government as a shining success. [But] the harm these decades-long investigations have had on my neighborhood is profound. They transform communities into places where neighbors distrust each other, where people censor themselves, and where everyone lives with an unhealthy dose of fear and paranoia. These investigations were spurred by policies that profiled entire communities based on religion and ethnicity and used a broad brush to paint us all as suspects.

This rhetoric that seeks to justify the blanket criminalizing of an entire swath of Americans in the name of national security is the same language used to justify police brutality against black people, and Homeland Security’s mass deportations and wrenching apart of immigrant families. We hope that this investigation will herald a cultural shift in public awareness on issues of government surveillance and national security and contribute to ending US government policies that allow the unwarranted profiling and surveillance of Americans.

 

In an interview with NPR a decade ago, you talked about straddling your two identifies, one as a Muslim and one as an American. How has that process changed for you personally in the past 10 years? How have you changed?

When I sat down for that interview with NPR, I knew two things for certain: that that terrorist attack would forever alter the way America saw me/us and would begin to take a toll on the way I saw myself, and second, that I never wanted to sit down on the other side of a microphone again. I wanted to be the one holding the mic. In this past decade, I think I have not so much reconciled my identities as learned to live within the discomfort. Somewhere in the gray dissonant border between the hyphens of my Muslim [faith] and my Americanness, I have discovered that my positionality allows me a liminal gaze, and because I stand in between boundaries, I am uniquely positioned to observe. I have shaped my life’s work around this in-between-ness, telling stories of those through whose eyes we rarely see the world. I tell stories in order to challenge ideas around our ways of seeing, to disrupt status quos, and to shatter conventional optics and create new ones.

A still from Assia Boundaoui’s film, The Feeling of Being Watched. Courtesy of Assia Boundaoui.

 

What is it like to be a Muslim journalist in America now, particularly as you are pursuing a story about how two decades ago—before 9/11, before Donald Trump—the government was engaged in an operation to determine the loyalties of you, your family, and your neighbors?

Seven years ago, I became a journalist in large part due to the work of the early “new journalists.” In Michael Herr’s recounting of the Vietnam War, he writes, “You were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.” The positionality that the “new journalists” occupied as participant-observers was the first kind of journalism I had read in which the reporters took no pains to conceal their subjectivity. Their positionality, in fact, was essential to their reportage. Responsibility for the gaze, for my own subjectivity, is why I do journalism.

 

If you don’t get the documents you need from the DOJ, do you still have a story to tell? And what is that story?

The DOJ has committed to releasing these records. The lawsuit is simply an attempt to compel them to prioritize their early release.

That said, they aren’t the only pieces of evidence we are relying on for this investigation. In addition to primary documents, we have first person sources, and all of the pieces together paint a clear picture of what the FBI was up to. In the documentary, we weave the journalistic investigation with the personal journey and use the cinematic lens as a metaphor for the various ways my community—and by extension, Muslim-American communities across the country—have been seen.

The German philosopher Friedrich Hegel wrote that “seeing comes before words,” and in his writing, he insists on the impossibility of existence without recognition from the other. Surveillance is, in its essence, a way of seeing without recognizing. It is preconditioned on a great physical distance from the object of its gaze. In our documentary, we confront these harmful and violent ways of seeing and try to get closer with subjects of surveillance who have for so long been seen from afar.

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.