San Francisco police working alongside federal law enforcement officials on the Joint Terrorism Task Force might be violating department rules and city law.
The case in question involves Sarmad Gilani, a 29-year-old software engineer from Normal, Ill., who moved to San Francisco two years ago to work for Google. Last year, some unusual visitors called on him at his downtown offices: a police officer and a federal official.
Gilani claims he has done nothing wrong and no one will tell him why he was under suspicion.
Several weeks ago, the Police Department told the Police Commission in a report that its officers in the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force have not participated in such interviews. A city ordinance passed in 2012 prohibits this kind of involvement as a means to protect against civil-liberties abuses.
However, Giliani, along with his attorney, say police have participated in "voluntary interviews" alongside federal agents.
The two men came to Gilani's office unannounced June 4. Gilani joked to his deskmate before heading to the lobby, "If I'm in Guantanamo Bay, go bail me out."
In the lobby, the men in plainclothes said they were following up on Gilani's Freedom of Information Act request. His lawyer, Brice Hamack with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, had filed the request earlier in the year to find out why Gilani had so much trouble whenever he traveled.
Gilani, who is Muslim, quickly realized their questions had little to do with the FOIA request. Instead, the 15-minute interaction centered on Gilani's travels to Pakistan, where his parents are from and many family members remain.
"Some people have delusions about being oppressed," Gilani said the federal agent told him. He added that the official also said, "I am not here because you're Muslim."
Then the San Francisco police officer, who has not been identified, spoke up to tell Gilani that they believed U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was released last year after being held captive in Afghanistan, was being held captive in Pakistan.
Then the officer asked Gilani: "What are your thoughts about that?" said Gilani, who was dumbfounded at the question. The officer asked Gilani to provide them with any information about that area of Pakistan.
Gilani said he told them, "You know, we're sitting at Google. I'm a software engineer. You can ask me about that ... but I don't know anything about this."
Before they left, Gilani asked about the status of his FOIA request. The federal agent said he knew of the request but didn't know its status. Then the police officer handed Gilani his card and made one last request.
"Next time you go, just keep your ears and eyes open," he said the agent told him. "If there's something that you think would be helpful, let one of us know."
"I can get you my grandmother's recipe," Gilani replied. "That's about all I can do for you."
The FBI confirmed that the interview occurred, but neither the FBI nor the Police Department would verify whether a cop was involved.
Mike Gimbel, an FBI spokesman, said members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force had a "voluntary conversation" with Gilani. Gimbel was not authorized to say more on the matter.
Generally, when the FBI receives tips or information on possible crimes and other matters, Gimbel said, it tries to follow up on those tips in order to ascertain if there is any validity to the reports.
AGAINST CITY, DEPARTMENT RULES
Interviews such as Gilani's are explicitly barred by a city ordinance and Police Department rules.
As part of the 2012 Safe San Francisco Civil Rights Ordinance — inspired by documents that showed the FBI had been illegally spying on Muslim community members in the Bay Area with the aid of police — the department is required to report annually on its activity with the Joint Terrorism Task Force and is not allowed in most cases to participate in federal investigation into constitutionally protected acts.
But Hamak said his client's story proves that this may not be the case, and he said they plan to file a complaint with San Francisco's Office of Citizen Complaints.
"It's not just the fact that they are breaking the rules," Hamak said. "They are either lying about it or not keeping proper documentation."
Nonetheless, according to the Police Department's report on the task force and an FBI review of the cases assigned to the department's two officers in the task force, no violations of The City's ordinance were found.
The two officers working with the task force are "intimately familiar" with these guidelines, said the report, which added that when The City's guidelines are more restrictive than the FBI's, police must follow those guidelines.
While the names of those officers were not released in the report — claiming such a revelation could jeopardize their safety — Gilani was handed a card by the officer who interviewed him. The card read: Inspector Gavin McEachern.
McEachern is in fact a member of the task force, according to police sources. He did not return a call for comment and the department would not confirm the identity of the two officers who work for the task force.
Aside from Gilani's story, the department's annual report on such activity is the only public document detailing the two officers and their work with the task force. The report said the officers were assigned 30 cases in 2014 that were generated from tips. Aside from following up on some of these tips, the officers' roles are to act as liaisons between the Police Department and FBI and prevent terrorist attacks and "investigate violent crimes which may involve a terrorism related motive or nexus."
Efforts by civil-liberty groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Asian Law Caucus, to further understand the extent of such activities in San Francisco have been unsuccessful.
Their requests for local documents on reports of suspected terrorist activities, specifically suspicious activity reports, or SARs, have been denied. SARs are part of a post-9/11 nationwide system of anti-terrorism surveillance. The reports can come from local law enforcement, private or institutional security and citizens. The reports need not be about criminal acts or even potential criminal acts.
Suspicious activities that may be reported by police are described in department memos as "any reported or observed activity, or any criminal act or attempted criminal act which an officer believes may have a nexus to foreign or domestic terrorism."
Details of what can be reported include taking photos of infrastructure, asking questions about facilities or infrastructure, vandalism and/or trespassing, among other things.
The department noted in its report to the Police Commission that it does file SARs to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, but did not indicate how many or the nature of those reports.
"These reports consist of suspicion activity based on the pre-identified risk indicators with a potential nexus to terrorist or criminal activities," the report said.
More widely, these reports, which were obtained in FOIA requests by the ACLU from several law enforcement agencies in the state and the federal facilities that collect them, are troubling signs of an erosion of civil liberties and due process, civil-liberty groups say.
A lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the Asian Law Caucus alleges that several of their clients outside San Francisco were included in SARs that were the result of racial profiling of people doing nothing wrong, much like Gilani.
"The clear trend is that none of these reports contain evidence of criminal or terrorist activity. They appear to be based on racial profiling and innocent activity," said Yaman Salahi, a lawyer with the Asian Law Caucus.
San Francisco's police officers have explicitly been warned against any such profiling as well as conducting interviews, such as the one with Gilani.
If a police officer did interview Gilani, it should have been part of the report, said Nasrina Bargzie with the Asian Law Caucus who says the Asian Law Caucus also had clients contacted by the FBI in The City for unclear reasons.
But ignorance around these activities remains troubling despite assurances to the contrary.
"The report," Salahi said of the Police Department's disclosure about suspicious activities reports, "doesn't answer the question: What 'suspicious' actually is."
Gilani said that he too remains in the dark on why he was questioned.
"I've done nothing wrong and they're trying to make me feel like I've done something wrong," he said. "I didn't know these things actually happened until it happened to me."
Reportable suspicious activities that target sensitive facilities or infrastructure include the following:
-Testing or probing security
- Theft, loss or diversion of security badges, keys and other access material
- Misuse of ID or impersonating staff to access a site
- Vandalism, arson or sabotage
- Expressed or implied threat to damage or compromise a facility
-Operation of aircraft in a suspicious manner posing a threat to people or facilities
-Photography, observation or surveillance of facilities or sites
-Eliciting information beyond the reasonable curiosity
- Acquiring unusual amounts of material such as weapons, pagers, fuel, cellphones, et al.
Source: Police Department