For decades, many Muslims in southwest suburban Bridgeview believed they were under surveillance by the U.S. government, journalist Assia Boundaoui said. But until recently, the only evidence was anecdotal.
“In the community, it’s been an open secret,” Boundaoui said. “People have internalized, perhaps, some shame about it. And surveillance continued because people kept the secret.”
After years of working as an international journalist, Boundaoui returned home to Bridgeview to get proof of the mass government surveillance. This month, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. government had to turn over more than 30,000 pages of documents related to the operation.
From those documents, Boundaoui found the community had been the subject of a massive FBI counterterrorism probe code-named Operation Vulgar Betrayal.
Boundaoui’s documentary, The Feeling of Being Watched, details Operation Vulgar Betrayal and is due out in early 2018.
In the first interview about the film, Boundaoui and her attorney, Christina Abraham, joined Worldview host Jerome McDonnell to talk about the arduous journey of discovering the truth.
On the community knowing it was being watched
Assia Boundaoui: Growing up, I always knew that there were people watching us. It was just something that a lot of kids in the neighborhood just knew. Our parents would warn us about cars parked down the street that they suspected government agents were sitting in and we would see them. And our parents would warn us not to talk to strangers in suits.
So, until today, it was almost a big inside joke. If you go to the neighborhood and take a look at the names of the wifi networks, for example, you’ll see “FBI Surveillance Man 1,” and “FBI Surveillance Man 2,” and “The NSA is watching this network.” We all are aware that this neighborhood has been watched for a long time.
On getting the government to share the documents
Christina Abraham: We had to go to court to get the government to give us anything at all. They were not giving us any documents, and this became one of the factors that the judge used to decide in Assia’s favor.
The law allows for the government to take longer than the normal 20 days for a Freedom of Information Act request if it can show that they are acting in due diligence, meaning that they are trying to get the documents. They couldn't do that in this case because we had waited a year and gone back and forth with them trying to negotiate some kind of practical schedule. They hadn’t produced a single document by the time we went to court.
On convincing the community to speak up
Boundaoui: The problem with surveillance is that it really gets its power from secrecy, and when FBI agents came and knocked on people’s doors, they reacted in fear. These are immigrants who came from countries where there are active intelligence agencies, and when you get a visit from an intelligence agent, they knew: You duck your head down, you don’t talk about it, you stay quiet. And that’s how they reacted when they came to the U.S. and the same surveillance happens.
We’ve been trying to convince people that the way to fight this is to be really open and public about it, because it didn’t just happen to you, it also happened to the person next door and the person down the street. There’s a power in this collective story, and we have to stop being afraid. We’re already on a list, so it’s not as if we speak out, we’re going to be added to one. Being quiet about it has never kept anyone in our community safe.
On the operation’s end
Boundaoui: Operation Vulgar Betrayal closed in 2000 and was abruptly shut down. 9-11 happened shortly after, and the investigation was reopened. And there was more, but we don’t know when it ended.
Today, if there’s a terrorist attack anywhere in the world, people in Bridgeview are visited by the FBI: after the Boston bombing, after the Paris attacks, before the elections. It’s like once you’re painted with this red paint of terrorism, it never comes off. You’re suspected — incorrectly — and you remain a suspect for life. And that’s the problem, people think the surveillance has never ended. We still get these visits.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation, which was adapted for the web by producer Arionne Nettles.