How one filmmaker is using artificial intelligence to uncover surveillance of her Muslim community in Chicago

Assia Boundaoui is leveraging the FBI’s decades of targeting communities of color to “fill in the blanks” of records she obtained in a federal FOIA battle as depicted in the documentary “The Feeling of Being Watched,” airing Oct. 14 on PBS.

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The Feeling of Being Watched

Filmmaker Assia Boundaoui obtained more than 33,000 pages of government records from Operation Vulgar Betrayal, one of the largest pre-9/11 domestic counter-terrorism probes that affected her Muslim and Arab community in Bridgeview, Illinois.

Since she was a kid, Assia Boundaoui knew that she, her family and her neighbors were being watched. It was an open secret in her hometown of Bridgeview, a Chicago suburb home to a large Muslim and Arab population where for decades residents experienced government surveillance, including home visits by FBI agents. 

Using her training as a journalist and documentary filmmaker, Boudaoui sought out proof beginning in 2014 by interviewing community members and filing Freedom of Information requests for records on Operation Vulgar Betrayal, one of the largest pre-9/11 counterrorism probes conducted domestically in the United States and included the Bridgeview community. She also submitted hundreds of privacy waivers on behalf of people who were surveilled to the Department of Justice, requesting files on individuals who had experienced surveillance. When the FBI responded, ultimately saying it would take years to process 33,000 pages of records on the investigation, Boundaoui sued. In 2017, a federal judge ruled that she was entitled to expedited processing, ordering the FBI to release 3,500 pages from the Vulgar Betrayal file each month and to give priority to the sub files of individuals for whom privacy waivers were filed. 

Boundaoui has since received thousands of heavily redacted government documents but not a single persons’ requested sub record. She is fighting those redactions and still seeking records from when the surveillance operation was reopened under a different name post-9/11. Her efforts are documented in “The Feeling of Being Watched,” an award-winning feature-length documentary she directed on the enduring impact surveillance has had on her community. The film will be nationally broadcast Monday, Oct. 14 on PBS as part of the 2019 season of the POV documentary series.

The Chicago Reporter spoke to Boundaoui on the status and findings of her investigation since the film wrapped last year, her plans to use artificial intelligence, machine learning and community engagement to uncover more about Operation Vulgar Betrayal, and how her community continues to grapple with the effects of constant surveillance. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Where are you in obtaining government records on surveillance of your community? What is the status of the FOIA fight? 

I never thought the film would be done and a year and a half later, we’re still in court. I think it’s been about three years now that we’ve been fighting this in court. And it’s just that the battle is so much bigger than film. You know, the film just showed a part of it but we’re still in court trying to fight for transparency. The Freedom of Information Act, the law itself on paper, purports to force the government to be transparent and give the public access to information. But in practice, it’s not at all how it works. Even as a journalist who has privileged access to expedited processing, etc., I needed a law firm to represent me for more than three years. I’m very lucky to have a pro bono firm representing us because an average person would never be able to afford something like this. 

The film shows how the government documents you’re receiving are heavily redacted. Can you tell us more about how you’re in early development on a project with the MIT Co-Creation Studio at Open Documentary Lab to use artificial intelligence to ‘fill in the blanks’ so to speak? 

What we’re working on is this idea that asking the same institutions and agencies that violated our rights to be transparent about that is kind of ironic, and it’s not enough. The idea is like how can we compel radical transparency in government without having to ask the government for it? And so the project is a machine learning project specifically and all machine learning requires a lot of data to be able to do that. So what we’re doing is twofold. On one hand, there are hundreds of thousands of records of other communities of color that have had very similar surveillance operations and investigations on them. So COINTELPRO isn’t just an investigation, it was a set of tactics. And these tactics have been used in communities of color over and over again. And so you know, after 40 years, the national security redactions expired. So we have access to hundreds of thousands of documents, surveillance of other communities of color, that are mostly unredacted that we’re using as part of our data set. 

The other part of the data set is people’s anecdotal experiences. For example, the FBI came to my home and interviewed my mother twice. They asked her a series of questions, sat for about an hour, and then they left. And the memo that was produced as a result of that interview is completely redacted for me. But my mother remembers how many people came, she remembers what they asked her, she remembers who they asked about. And so that’s evidence too. 

So what we’re doing is we have a story booth — we call it a co-created project so it’s something that we’re doing with our community — and asking folks to give their primary evidence, basically, of their interactions with the FBI, of what might be their evidence that’s been redacted from the record. And we’re using these two data sets, the historical record of investigations of communities of color, and then the specific anecdotal experiences and primary evidence from individuals who were interviewed and investigated in my community to help us predict what might be behind the black holes in the reductions. 

Although the records you’ve received are incomplete and heavily redacted, is there any new information or insights you’ve been able to glean from them? Any surprises or details you didn’t know or suspect before? 

It confirms without a doubt that this was a mass fishing campaign based on religious and ethnic profiling. But it’s also like, there have been some really disturbing details too. So there’s this one document with my father’s name that’s unredacted and details a moment that we were outside of the house, and it’s like two children come out of the car, those two kids were me and my brother, in just astonishing detail. 

Way before we had electronic, digital surveillance, the mass collection of physical data was really astonishing, and the kind of details they were collecting, and really the very blatant guilt by association. 

I stopped looking for that one yellow canary or that one red flag that would say, ‘Oh, yeah, like, here’s what they did illegally,’ because obviously, they’re creating these records. But in the whole, in their whole sum, they were very disturbing to see how widespread this net was that they cast.

Do the documents give you any sense or any clues of what sparked such an intensive probe of Bridgeview specifically? Operation Vulgar Betrayal appears to have been a white collar crime investigation that was counterterrorism? 

Yeah, there’s a, there’s a really great book [“The Price of Fear: The Truth Behind the Financial War on Terror,”], Ibrahim Warde is the author of it. But he writes specifically about how, in the ‘90s, the FBI began to use like a mafia model on terrorism, which was like follow the money. They had a very, very flawed assumption that these acts of terrorism that were happening abroad required a lot of money and were being financed by people in the U.S. And the assumption is flawed because terrorist acts actually don’t require very much money and most of the money that is needed for them is actually gathered very locally. 

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And that’s why they were looking at charities, that’s why they were looking at philanthropic giving, and seeing all of these as suspicious. What they saw as a network of organized crime was, in fact, a network of an immigrant community. You would see things in the documents like such-and-such borrowed money from this person. And that person gave him a loan. And it’s like, actually, well, these people were related, you know, and that guy married this girl’s cousin and they started a store together, you know? Like these are actually the networks of an immigrant community. That’s what it looks like. And they superimpose this gaze on it and for them, it looked like a criminal organized crime network. 

There’s one scene in the film where you attend a roundtable discussion between law enforcement officials and mosque leaders. You raise questions about FBI surveillance and civil rights infringement at the meeting and are sort of dismissed not just by the FBI reps, but also some of the Muslim leadership. Can you speak to the question of how Muslim communities feel they should or shouldn’t engage law enforcement? Is it a conversation or debate that you feel has changed or evolved? 

I think there’s definitely a shift, Maybe these conversations that were happening privately are now happening publicly. But this question of respectability politics and the leadership is letting the FBI in through the front door while they’re still sneaking in through the back door. And that’s super problematic. The leadership is engaging with the FBI in a manner that the community disagrees with in general. It’s not the kind of engagement we want. 

And I think it’s also really racialized. I think that people think their proximity to whiteness is what’s going to save them, their proximity to elite status is going to be something that protects them. And we know over and over and over that that’s not the case. I think there’s a lot to learn from older Muslim communities that have been here for a long time, like the black Muslim community, and learn lessons like the police aren’t here to protect us, they’re here to protect something else. And the way we engage needs to be different and it needs to be one that really understands the history of how the FBI and law enforcement in general have treated and otherized people of color to protect white supremacy. And so I think there’s a real shift that’s happening and it’s not just a generational one. 

After that encounter at the mosque with the mosque leadership and the law enforcement representatives, the film shows you having a conversation with your mom where she says the biggest effect of the massive surveillance has been basically to instill fear in a community that has nothing to hide, and it’s a theme you touch on throughout the film. Do you feel the surveillance your community has been subjected to has had a chilling effect on freedom of expression, association and political activity?

When you shut down the largest Muslim charities in the country and in the neighborhood, that has an absolute chilling effect on philanthropic giving. When you send FBI agents to surveil [Muslim Student Association] meetings, that absolutely has an effect on how many people join the MSA next year. So certainly it has had some really obvious chilling effects and some quieter ones.

My theory, and this is something that I put at the end of the film, was that the purpose of these investigations was not to find crime but it was to create a chilling effect on the organizing of our community. So yeah, you see that in giving, you see that in how people associate or don’t associate, you see that in what people even post on Facebook or social media, and what we say out loud on the phone or don’t say, the kind of self-censorship that we engage in because we’re very much aware that we’re being watched. And we’re very much aware that whether or not we’ve committed a crime, whether or not we have anything to hide, we’re still going to be watched, that actually it’s not about innocence. There were some people that would say, ‘oh if I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to worry about.’ And I say well, that’s all based on a false premise that  innocence actually matters. But actually, if you have nothing to hide, depending on your identity or your last name, you have a hell of a lot to worry about.

What do you feel are the parallels between your community’s experience with surveillance and other targeted surveillance efforts against communities of color, like COINTELPRO, Puerto Rican independence activists and others? 

The way I see it is when a community of color becomes organized on a political issue that threatens white supremacy, or specifically does not take the U.S. government line, that’s when the heavy-handed surveillance falls on them. In my community, it was Palestinian activism. You know, it was Puerto Rican independence movement and agitating for an independent Puerto Rico, that was for that community. It was an American Indian Movement that really started talking about wanting repatriation of the land that really brought the heavy hand down on the American Indian Movement. So that seems to be the pattern.

What has been the reaction to the film in the Bridgeview community? 

It was a triggering thing for people to see the film. At the screening that we had for 500 people, there were a lot of very emotional reactions, some people were having panic attacks. It was very psychological and emotional reactions to it. We kind of anticipated it and we had therapists on hand to help people in that moment. I think one of the biggest reactions and in my opinion, it’s a reaction that comes out of trauma, is that we just think like, ‘okay, shit’s happening, we just got to keep moving forward, we have to survive, we have to keep going.’ And we don’t stop long enough to see, you know, how this has affected us — how these decades of surveillance or being looked at a certain way has traumatized us. 

I think the film was a moment for people to pause and look at the wound. We’re really interested in talking about like if we’ve been collectively traumatized by these operations, what does collective healing look like and how can we do that in community? And so I think the film has validated things that people thought only happened to them, or maybe thought that they were just being too paranoid about. It validated those feelings particularly for people who were investigated — we had in the audience people whose fathers were investigated — because it was like, you are not alone, that this was not personal. It was part of a systemic operation. It was something that the FBI has historically done and is doing all around the country. 

You’ve written about how initially, you set out to make a journalistically “objective” film but then you kind of came to embrace your point of view as a member of a community that’s been deeply impacted by these events. So can you speak a little bit more about how your feelings on what you’ve called the ‘myth of objectivity’ have evolved? 

This idea that being further away from the subject of a story gives you more authority to tell that story than someone standing really up close next to it is like actually colonial, it’s a very colonial concept. I felt like I had to unlearn a lot of things in order to tell the film and to tell the story I needed to tell. 

There’s a power in point of view. I don’t believe at all in objectivity, I believe in transparency. Being transparent was really important when you’re making a film about a counter-narrative, knowing that there are going to be detractors, knowing that you might be attacked on this. It was important that we were very transparent in our processes. I think the most honest you can be is not to pretend to be objective or have a ‘voice of God,’ but to acknowledge your positionality, like where are you standing relative to the subjects of your story, and to be really transparent about your process. That’s actually always the kind of journalism that I was attracted to, like the new journalists who talked about how being in a place changed what they were talking about and also were really, really transparent about their process. 

I think there’s also a lot of pressure as a person of color, as a woman, to distance yourself from a thing. We feel like we would be discredited otherwise. And it took a lot of really looking at it in the face and realizing that this is a really racist idea and I swallowed it. And in order for me to actually tell this story honestly, I have to unlearn it.

What’s next for you and your investigation now that the film’s wrapped? 

I’m working on this AI project, which is really wonderful to be doing something non- journalistic. Because basically, as a journalist, this was a dead end for me, right? Like, getting all of these redacted documents was a dead end. And so I’ve had to think like, ‘okay, well how can I approach this? How can I solve this? How can I deal with this as a non-journalist, like as an artist where I have more parameters to deal with the truth?’ 

I see it less as a journalistic project and as more of an artistic project where we try to reclaim the narrative within the actual frame of the government narrative. And so it’s a project that kind of evolved. It came out of the frustration of going to war for these documents and winning the battle and feeling like I still lost the war because of the redactions. And so what I started to do was these guerrilla projections on government buildings, where I would project the actual redacted document and in the black holes, project images of my family, like home videos of us in the ‘90s at the time that they were surveilling us. So literally juxtaposing what they said about us in their documents, and in the black holes projecting our narrative of what we were actually up to at the time. And it’s really mundane stuff, you know? It’s like graduations and picnics and all of that. And the idea was like, ‘okay, how do I subvert the narrative and then deal with the black holes here?’ So the idea was like, ‘oh, can I project meaning into them?’ And then from that the idea of the AI project was born, and instead of maybe just projecting meaning into the black holes, can we try to predict what might be behind them? 

Last question: were you ever visited or did you hear from FBI agent Robert Wright — who initiated Operation Vulgar Betrayal — again, since the film has been released?

Nope, I have not. 

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that the machine learning project with the MIT Co-Creation Studio at Open Documentary Lab is in early development.