While investigating the harmful impact of government surveillance on an Arab-American community, a filmmaker turns the tables by offering a primer on counter-surveillance research.
In 2015, Algerian-American filmmaker Assia Boundaoui set out to document the impact of surveillance on the Arab and Muslim community where she grew up. The Feeling of Being Watched charts her effort to expose Operation Vulgar Betrayal, a long-running Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) campaign targeting the largely Palestinian community in Bridgeview, Illinois, southwest of Chicago. The film tells a riveting story about the goals and impacts of domestic surveillance—but it also provides an important primer on counter-surveillance research and government efforts to thwart transparency.
The opening scenes of the film capture Boundaoui’s aspiration to orient her film as a study of exercising power by those from below. Hoping to uncover the tactics and strategies of government surveillance through listening to those targeted by the FBI, she went door to door in Bridgeview asking neighbors about their experiences with surveillance. Yet while a few people shared stories, most refused to talk. When Boundaoui asked a neighbor if she has become paranoid, the neighbor explained: “Not at all. I just think everything is happening, it’s going on. It’s real life, it’s not an imagination, it’s not paranoia.” People knew they were under surveillance but they were not comfortable talking about it, even with a neighbor, let alone a filmmaker. By the end of the film, Boundaoui concludes that fear and silence are the very purpose of FBI surveillance. The goal is to disrupt community organizing by inducing anxiety and fragmenting social ties.
Unable to collect stories due to fears about speaking out, Boundaoui turned to archival research to expose FBI surveillance. Following leads in a newspaper article, she tracked down a small archive of FBI documents on Operation Vulgar Betrayal (OVB) that was posted online by a freedom of information archivist named Paul Galante.1 She learned that a key target of OVB was Muhammad Salah, a resident of Bridgeview and the first US citizen placed on a terrorist watchlist. Salah was arrested by Israel in 1993, confessed under torture to providing funds to Hamas and served five years in an Israeli prison.
After Israel shared Salah’s file with the US government, the Chicago field office of the FBI launched OVB, a wide-ranging dragnet operation seeking to uncover networks of financial support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Treating the southwest suburbs of Chicago as the epicenter of these networks, the FBI targeted the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview along with dozens of institutions around Chicago and across the country. The FBI eventually charged Salah with terrorism and racketeering, but he was found not guilty. In fact, OVB never led to any terrorism-related convictions. But the FBI has terrorized the Muslim community in Bridgeview through intense surveillance for more than two decades.
In the online archive, Boundaoui also found an FBI document from 1998 ordering the seizure of Salah’s house in Bridgeview through a process of civil asset forfeiture. Suddenly her investigation became intensely personal. Boundaoui and her family had lived downstairs from Salah and were evicted when the government took his house. Bringing this document to her family, Boundaoui began turning her research into a process of collective healing: Her mother shared stories about the eviction and her siblings talked about its impact on their lives.
The archive of FBI documents also led Boundaoui to an important tool for counter-surveillance: the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Feeling of Being Watched traces each step in Boundaoui’s long battle to expose the inner workings of power through the use of FOIA requests. When she asked for FBI documents that mentioned herself and members of her family, she was met with a wall of rejection and obfuscation. The FBI denied one request because, “you have not provided compelling arguments explaining why the public needs information on this topic immediately.” A second FBI response “neither confirms nor denies the existence of your subject’s name on any watchlist.” And a third response insisted that “the mere acknowledgment of such records’ existence or nonexistence would in and of itself trigger harm to national security.” These rejections constitute an important limitation of FOIAs for uncovering government surveillance.
But Boundaoui had better luck when she made a FOIA request for documents on Operation Vulgar Betrayal. Rather than a denial, she received notice that the FBI had 33,120 pages related to OVB. The problem, a FOIA officer explained, is that it would take nearly three years to process and release the documents. Despite the maze of bureaucratic obstacles, Boundaoui had an opening. She decided to press her case with a lawsuit demanding expedited processing. The FBI pushed back, explaining that they had more important business and that it would actually take more than five years to process and release her documents. Presiding over the case before the US District Court, Judge Thomas M. Durkin ruled in Boundaoui’s favor and ordered the FBI to process 3,500 pages a month. These scenes demonstrate the importance of legal support when using FOIA to expose government spying.
Following the court case, Boundaoui organized a town hall meeting and know-your-rights workshop to share her research with residents of Bridgeview. The town hall provided an opportunity to discuss details about OVB and to initiate a community dialogue about overcoming fear and resisting surveillance. As one speaker explained: “No shai (tea) for FBI. It’s very simple—do not invite them into your home.”
During an interview on the Chicago Public Radio station WBEZ, Boundaoui explained that her legal victory set an important precedent in FOIA litigation by forcing the government to expedite the processing of documents that serve a public interest. She also affirmed the FOIA process as a unique and important feature of democracy in the United States. “While the government can conduct this surveillance and can violate your privacy and freedom of association and freedom of religion,” she explained, “you also have the right to know that they do that. And that’s an incredible thing about this democracy is that you have the right to know and you can get the records of them violating your rights.”
But Boundaoui’s victory was incomplete. The film ends when Boundaoui received the first batch of documents from the FBI. Most pages were completely redacted. By now, she has received all of the documents. According to Boundaoui, 70 percent are fully redacted and the rest are heavily redacted. Along with denials and delays, redactions provide yet another tool that the surveillance state uses to maintain its secrecy in the face of FOIA requests.
In light of these redactions, Boundaoui may have reassessed her optimism about the right to knowledge. But her commitment to the struggle for transparency remains strong. Working with data scientists at MIT, Boundaoui is now developing a computer learning algorithm that will help her see through the redactions.2 The program will begin by analyzing hundreds of thousands of FBI documents produced over the last 100 years. After identifying patterns of language used during operations targeting Black, Latinx, indigenous and Asian communities, the program will try to fill in the blanks in Boundaoui’s archive of documents about Operation Vulgar Betrayal. For Boundaoui, artificial intelligence represents a promising future for counter-surveillance research.
Boundaoui has also maintained her commitment to using her research for community healing. She is currently planning a series of community screenings and workshops facilitated by healers. The goal of these workshops is to address collective trauma and promote dialogue about ongoing surveillance. As she explained in an interview with The Independent, “It’s actually important to your healing to understand the truth and what happened to you so you can move past that.”3
“Perhaps there is nothing I can do about being watched,” the film concludes. “Maybe the only thing I can do is to make sure the government is not invisible, that the systems of power are kept in check. It’s in the act of looking back and talking out loud that we become less alienated, less petrified by our paranoia. Perhaps the only way to disrupt surveillance is to make sure that those who do the watching are also being watched.”
As a window into the extensive US government surveillance of Arabs and Muslims, The Feeling of Being Watched is a powerful reminder of the devastating impact such surveillance can inflict on communities. Boundaoui situates OVB as the latest example in a long history of FBI operations targeting politically engaged communities of color. As she points out, the FBI uses surveillance to generate anxiety, undermine trust and dismantle communities as they begin to mobilize.
For scholars and activists interested in exposing state practices—in “looking back and talking out loud”—the film also demonstrates the possibilities and limitations of multiple methods of counter-surveillance: interviews with targeted communities, newspaper and internet archives and FOIA requests. And Boundaoui’s future work should provide insight into the potential of using artificial intelligence to see through redactions. ■
1 The online archive can be accessed at: https://archive.org/details/VulgarBetrayal/page/n1
2 Annu Shukla, “AI Used to Reveal Information Hidden by FBI Following Decades-Long Programme of Spying on US Muslims,” The Independent, March 30, 2019.