The U.S. government secretly gathered personal data on more than 130,000 immigrants in the run-up to the war in Iraq, according to a purported FBI document attached to a lawsuit filed Tuesday demanding more detail about how the information was gathered and used.
The New York Civil Liberties Union's lawsuit against the Justice Department alleges that federal authorities may have violated the privacy of the immigrants under a previously undisclosed FBI program the document refers to as "Operation Darkening Clouds."
The NYCLU sued after the FBI rejected a Freedom of Information Act request last year to disclose more details about the program. The civil rights group says the FBI replied that "it neither confirms nor denies the existence of the activity or records concerning this subject."
The alleged data-mining efforts "run counter to our core American values by unfairly singling out immigrants and making them targets of suspicion and scrutiny," Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director, said in a statement.
The FBI and the Justice Department had no immediate comment.
The suit filed in federal court in Manhattan says the document — titled "U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services/Fraud Detection and National Security Unit Automated Systems" — was originally obtained last year under an earlier Freedom of Information demand by Yale Law School students. The students sought the information for a project examining the government's data-mining of computer records as an investigative tool since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The five-page document describes the benefits of background checks by the Office of Fraud Detection and National Security, a Homeland Security offshoot formed in 2003 to fight immigration fraud. It concludes with a brief reference to the immigrant database.
"During the pre-invasion of Iraq, FDNS personnel pulled together over 130,000 immigration records which were the cornerstone of Operation Darkening Clouds (FBI) and Operation Liberty Shield (DHS)," it says.
Liberty Shield was unveiled by the White House in 2003 as a "comprehensive national plan" by the Department of Homeland Security to tighten borders and disrupt terror plots.
Without detailing "Operation Darkening Cloud," the document contained in the NYCLU suit describes how "immigration information and systems" aided federal investigations.
In one instance, it said, a "sweep of immigration databases" turned up the names of foreign students at Midwest universities suspected of changing their majors to science at the request of an unnamed country that wanted to draft them for a prohibited nuclear arms program.
It says the information "resulted in a successful pitch of two of those students to assist the U.S. government in exchange for permanent resident alien status."