By Thomas Watkins
LOS ANGELES — Plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the FBI said Wednesday that the agency's use of a paid informant to infiltrate California mosques has left them and others Muslims with an enduring fear that their phones and e-mails are being screened and their physical whereabouts monitored.
The claims came at a news conference announcing the lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Los Angeles office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The civil rights groups allege that former FBI informant Craig Monteilh violated Muslims' freedom of religion by conducting indiscriminate surveillance because of their faith.
The former fitness instructor with a criminal past spied on Orange County mosques for the FBI for more than a year from 2006 to 2007, recording conversations and meetings with a device concealed on his key ring and a camera hidden in a shirt button.
"To know that he was targeting me simply because I was a Muslim, it's sad," said Ali Malik, one of three plaintiffs named in the suit. "I live in paranoia. ... I just wish the FBI didn't do this."
Malik, a Pakistani-American, added that his wife had nightmares about him being snatched by agents.
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said she could not comment on pending litigation but emphasized that the FBI does not target religious groups or individuals based on their religion.
"Any investigation would be based on allegations of criminal activity," she said.
Another plaintiff, Yassir Fazaga, who is a religious leader and a therapist, says he no longer feels he can guarantee his clients full confidentiality because he thinks the FBI is listening in.
Monteilh's use as an informant has caused little but headaches for the FBI.
The one-time machine operator has a lengthy rap sheet dating to the 1980s and a history of evictions and bad debts for everything from car payments to rent to credit cards.
After several months of gathering cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses for his handlers, agents asked Monteilh to talk more openly about jihad and his willingness to engage in violence, according to the lawsuit.
Instead of responding approvingly to Monteilh's violent rhetoric, several mosque-goers called the FBI to say they were worried about his statements.
Monteilh himself is suing the FBI over his treatment by the handlers.
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He says the FBI failed to protect him from grand theft charges he claims were related to his work for the agency on a drug ring investigation. He eventually served eight months in prison on the felony counts.