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What Arab Americans Should Know if the FBI Comes Calling

posted on: Feb 21, 2018

Michael Springmann Arab America Contributing Writer

For many years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI, the Bureau) has made surveillance of Arab Americans its policy.  This is a policy bordering on, if not intended as, harassment.  It’s not new.  It’s not a product of the Forever War against Arabs and Muslims in South and Southwest Asia and North Africa.  It’s not something adopted following the September 11, 2001, attacks.  It goes back to the Nixon Administration and its Operation Boulder.  Adopted in September 1972, this was a visa screening program focusing on Arabs traveling to the United States. State Department Foreign Service posts cabled Washington the voyager’s name, date, and place of birth, physical description, the purpose of travel, port of entry, carrier, and planned arrival date.  The FBI was one of the cable addressees. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was broad surveillance of Palestinian student organizations in the United States. The Bureau also kept extensive intelligence files on Arab-American activists.  Often, this information was obtained from and/or shared with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, and Homeland Security’s Fusion Centers.  (Visas for Al Qaeda, p. 37, footnote 30).

The Bureau’s scrutiny of Arab Americans following September 11 could fill and has filled books.

During the second week of February 2018, FBI agents visited the home of a UCLA student and asked the residents questions about their activism for Palestinian rights. As Arab Americans, it is important for you to know your rights when an FBI agent knocks on your door.  

If the FBI, part of the U.S. Justice Department, wants to talk with you, do as Nancy Reagan always advised: Just Say “No”.  Politely.

No one, regardless of their citizenship or immigration status, is required by any law to speak with FBI officials, usually called Special Agents.  In fact, if you do, without an attorney present, you may end up in real trouble with law enforcement.  The FBI has a long history of preying on individuals seen as knowing little about their civil rights and/or coming from a culture that does not challenge authority.  A series of cleverly-worded questions could elicit responses that, to the FBI, might indicate potentially criminal action.  If so, you could be subject to arrest.

But you have protection:  through the Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments to the federal Constitution.  The States ratified them in 1791, two years after the foundation of the Republic.

Here’s What to Do and What Not to Do

On The Street

  • You have the right to remain silent.  If you wish to exercise that right, say so–out loud.
  • You have the right to refuse a search of your person.  (You may be legally subject to a “pat -down” of your body and clothing to determine if weapons might be present.
  • Ask if you are under arrest.  If told no, you may walk away.  If you are held longer than 15 minutes, you might be considered to be detained.  Therefore, ask.

In Your Car or at Home

  • You have the right to refuse a search of your car, particularly the trunk, including any of its contents, or your home, be it house, apartment, or trailer.  Should you permit the Special Agent to search your car, he may find something he believes to be incriminating, such as a model airplane in the trunk of a car near the White House.  (That happened to a client’s friend.  He spent hours answering questions about a toy he had bought for his son.)  If evidence of contraband (things held illegally) are visible from outside the vehicle, the FBI may search the car.  If the agent believes you may be armed and dangerous, he may search the automobile’s interior but only within the “wingspan” of your reach.   You must produce a driver’s license, car registration papers, and proof of insurance.  You should avoid answering any other questions and ask if you are free to leave or if you are under arrest.
  • In your home, be it ever so humble, the government’s Writ stops at your front door.  No one may enter without your permission.  If the FBI agents insist, ask to see a warrant.  Have them hold it up to the window so that you may read it.  Or have then slip it through the mail slot.  The 4th Amendment in the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.  A valid search warrant must be issued “…upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
  • Allowing FBI agents into your home without a warrant can result in real trouble.  They are free to look at or examine anything that catches their eye.  If you have something you shouldn’t have, such as illegal drugs, unregistered weapons, books or videos urging overthrow of the U.S. government, or whatever, the FBI may seize them and arrest you.

How You Should Behave

  • Be calm.  Be polite.
  • If threatened with arrest, ask for an attorney. And say nothing more.
  • Do not interfere with or obstruct the agents.
  • Do not lie, do not lie, do not lie.  It is a crime to lie to a federal agent.  Additionally, if you lie about your citizenship status, you might be deported.
  • If you live with adult relatives or share an apartment or house with others, impress upon them the foregoing remarks about searches and seizures.  Make it clear to them that anyone, not just the owner, can refuse to let the FBI in.  Or, allow them past the door.  However, if permitted in, the FBI may search without a warrant, endangering everyone there as an accomplice should that agency find evidence of criminal activity.

The foregoing does not constitute legal advice.  More information may be found at the American Civil Liberties Union website: and Palestine Legal at


Michael Springmann is an attorney, author, and political commentator. He has written Visas for Al Qaeda: CIA Handouts That Rocked The World and a second book Goodbye, Europe? Hello, Chaos? Merkel’s Migrant Bomb. Both are available on Amazon. The books’ website is: