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Danger Among Us, Part 1: Surveillance of Arab-Americans--Operation Boulder

posted on: Jun 23, 2021

Photo: From “The Rise of the Arab American Left”

By: Omar Mansour / Arab America Contributing Writer

Long before 9/11, Arabs and Muslims have been on the receiving end of institutionalized racism from the American government and law enforcement agencies. The earliest example of this discriminatory policy is the little-known “Operation Boulder” initiative, a program launched by the Nixon Administration in 1972, allegedly a response to the “security threat” that followed the Munich Olympics attacks carried out by Black September. The official rationale of the program was “national security” by means of a strict visa screening program, looking at visa applications for all Arabs coming into the country, as well as monitoring all non-citizen Arabs in the United States on visas, in addition to Arab-American citizens, however, it was actually a federal, state and local program of surveillance, harassment, intimidation, political suppression, and community destruction.

True Motives:

Though stated as such, the real purpose of Operation Boulder and associated measures was not to protect national security– and indeed, the investigations never detected a single case of terrorist or espionage activity among Arabs living in the United States. Many Arab American leaders asserted that the true purpose was to suppress Arab Americans’ legal political expression, particularly their pro-Palestinian activism. Essentially, it was a program of political intimidation with intent to suppress Arabs’ political activism in America, particularly on college campuses. It also sought to “divide and conquer” Arab American communities by making them suspicious of one another. Stork and Theberge charged that the “most important aspect of this Operation is the clear intention of the US [government] to drive a wedge between the relatively small number of politically active Arabs and Arab Americans, and the majority of ‘ethnic Arab’ communities who might be otherwise inclined to support them.”

The political motivations for surveillance can be seen in the fact that surveillance of Arab Americans began years before Operation Boulder in 1972. The story of attorney and activist, Abdeen Jabara, illustrates these motives well. After the June 1967 war, Jabara was among the group of professionals who formed the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG), prompting federal government agents to track Jabara’s activities, along with the activities of several other prominent Arab American leaders, many of whom were associated with the AAUG and the Organization of Arab Students (OAS) Jabara tells Arab America: “When operation Boulder came down, it was an effort to screen all the activists in this country to create this database. That’s what the whole purpose of operation was – to create a database and to start deportation proceedings against those most politically active”

Jabara was a central figure in resisting the government’s violations of Arab Americans’ civil liberties. Besides applying public and political pressure, he fought the federal government’s methods in the legal arena. In mid-1972, Jabara had, by chance, discovered that he was being spied on. He had read an article in Newsweek magazine that some of his clients were being tracked, and by extension, himself. He had also been tipped off by an employee at his Detroit bank that the government had been monitoring his financial transactions. These discoveries prompted him to sue, stating that this needed to be exposed and be public information. The FBI initially declined to answer questions about surveillance until the ACLU joined to represent Jabara, forcing their hand.

The FBI admitted that “there had been overhears of my conversations with some of my clients. And they also said they received information from other federal agencies…And they didn’t want to answer that – who that agency was…the court compelled them to answer and it turned out that other agency was the NSA”. This was the first time that the NSA was compelled by the justice system to reveal subjects of its electronic surveillance.

It was revealed that surveillance of Jabara dated back to 1967 and had continued through 1974. The files included lists of Jabara’s organizational affiliations, reports of his travels, transcripts of wiretapped conversations, interviews, contacts with banks, and summaries of his speeches and activities at scores of public and private meetings, meaning that informants close to Jabara were being used. Jabara tells Arab America: “I was absolutely shocked at the level that I had been spied on. I had no idea that it was that extensive…they had sent out information about 17 different federal agencies and three foreign governments”.


Equally troubling to many Arab American activists was the suspected collaboration of Israeli intelligence forces and American Zionist groups with the U.S. agencies investigating Arab students and Arab Americans.

Jabara tells Arab America that Israeli intelligence and American Zionist groups were absolutely heavily involved and that the US’ support for Israel’s occupation after the 1967 war heart of this operation. Israeli and US national security is at play here, but not in a traditional sense. For Israel, any resistance to the occupation is a “security threat”, and for the United States, Israeli “national security” is also American national security. This is the point Jabara tells Arab America he wants to really drive at: “the whole business about Israeli national security was bound up with American national security… they became almost coterminous”. The US in its surveillance activities was not based on any credible threat by Arab activists to Israel’s existence, but rather on the threat the activism represented towards the Israeli occupation and settlement programs.

Stork and Theberge highlighted an October 1972 report in the Washington Post about the cooperation between Mossad, the CIA and FBI in tracking Palestinians. Stork and Theberge declared, “Israeli collaboration in Operation Boulder is all but bragged about, although the details are hard to come by.” Later it was revealed that Israeli officials, U.S. officials, and the Anti-Defamation League had continually exchanged information about Arabs living in the United States, including American citizens. The ADL, according to a former Israeli security official and an Anti-Defamation League spokesman, would keep files on “active” Arabs in the US and pass them on to the FBI. The former Israeli official declared that Israeli intelligence agents were far more concerned with political influence, not any “terrorist” activity. This supports the claim that it was the political threat to the occupation and settlement program that was of concern.

Even before this operation Arabs were under a microscope inside the US, at the behest of Zionist organization and Israeli intelligence. 19 years after the Nakba, the 1967 war galvanized Arab political activism on behalf of Palestine and the Palestinian cause, and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy by Sirhan Sirhan in 1968 was a convenient justification for political suppression already planned beforehand. After a speech to  the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)in 1969, Gerald Ford and leaders of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B’nai B’rith demanded that the government monitor all Arab students in the United States. In 1969 AIPAC circulated a newsletter to policymakers in Washington, D.C., warning them about the threat of Arabs and their propaganda at American universities and expressed the suspicion that Palestinian fighters were circulating among them. The CIA, in 1969 and 1970, investigated connections between groups abroad and Arab students in the United States; however, no connection was ever found.


The almost 10 years of surveilling Arabs yielded nothing, and yet this spirit of intimidation, blackmail, suppression and punishment of Arabs and Arab Americans continued years after the end of Operation Boulder in 1975, and indeed, has been resisted to this very day. From Operation Boulder, the attempt to deport the LA 8, the prosecution of the Holy Land 5, and more recently since the onset of BDS, targeting students advocating for Palestinian liberation, such as those in Students for Justice in Palestine, a pattern emerges: politically-motivated, selective prosecution which has the effect if not the intent of intimidating entire communities is alive and well with no intention of stopping on its own. This topic must also be viewed from a frame of human rights, and the denial of these rights, guaranteed to Palestinians in numerous United Nations resolutions, and the Geneva Convention. This includes the Palestinian Right of Return. When broken down, we see that the rationale for the surveillance is actually quite simple – much of the activism from Arabs here in the US on Palestine targeted the Israeli occupation of 1967 territories, the settlements in those lands, as well as the horrible human rights violations. This is the so called “national security” threat Israel talks about, and the US, will do anything it can to support the occupation and Israeli denial of Palestinian rights, including surveilling Arabs and attempting to intimidate them into passivity on Palestine activism. Abdeen Jabara tells Arab America “The US was complicit in the denial of Palestinian rights. That complicity explains the surveillance”, even knowing nothing would turn up.

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