Muslim sues over loss of security clearance


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Charging violation of his constitutional rights to free speech and religion, equal protection and due process, nuclear scientist and prison imam Moniem El-Ganayni filed a federal lawsuit yesterday against the Department of Energy and its acting deputy secretary, Jeffrey F. Kupfer.

The action stems from the loss of Dr. El-Ganayni's security clearance, and hence his job, at Bettis Laboratory in West Mifflin, based on unspecified grounds of "national security." It does not seek to overturn the revocation, but rather the right to see the alleged evidence against him -- he doubts any exists -- and the chance to contest the decision "before a nonpolitical, neutral arbiter, as mandated by DOE regulations."

"The government has offered no factual details in this case. All they've done is to parrot boilerplate language from the DOE," said Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which is representing Dr. El-Ganayni along with lawyers from the Downtown offices of Schnader Harrison Segal and Lewis.

"There are ways to handle classified information without compromising national security," he said. "The government has done it before."

The suit says Dr. El-Ganayni was damaged by the government's actions and, in addition to a hearing, seeks affirmation of his rights as a U.S. citizen, plus costs and attorneys' fees.

National security, the suit alleges, was invoked "solely to shield the agency from having to disclose the unconstitutional retaliatory and discriminatory reasons" for its action. In reality, it says, the decision was made "because he is a foreign-born Muslim who has spoken publicly and critically about U.S. foreign policy and the FBI's treatment of Muslims."

"Many [native-born] Americans say what I say about the war," Dr. El-Ganayni said yesterday. "But when I say it, I become a traitor. I want to show that the laws apply to me the same as to any other citizen."

The 29-page complaint sets out a scenario of post-9/11 suspicion and harassment against local Muslims, and Dr. El-Ganayni's opposition to it. It says he was visited by government agents at his home, asked to inform on other Muslims (he refused) and denied boarding passes on routine airline flights when his American-born wife went right through.

Dr. El-Ganayni came to the United States from Egypt in 1980, became a U.S. citizen in 1988 and started work at the Bettis nuclear propulsion research facility in 1990. He earned his advanced degrees at the University of Pittsburgh, co-founded the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, and ministered to prisoners in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

He contends that he never had a clearance problem at work until he began speaking out against the Iraq war and the FBI's efforts to recruit informants at local mosques.

In October, he was questioned by DOE security and then the FBI. The questions were unrelated to his job or any breach of security, the suit says, but focused only on his religious beliefs, political views, his work as an imam in the Pennsylvania prison system, and his speeches criticizing the FBI's treatment of Muslims -- including a raid on a mosque, for which the FBI apologized a year later.

His clearance was suspended, and Bettis put him on half pay pending a hearing. In January, the DOE sent him a letter quoting standard language that he had "knowingly established or continued sympathetic association with a saboteur, spy, terrorist, traitor, seditionist, anarchist, or revolutionist, espionage agent, or representative of a foreign nation whose interests are inimical to the ... United States." It said the government had "reliable information" he had engaged in "unusual conduct" that showed he was "not honest, reliable or trustworthy," that he may be subject to "pressure, coercion, exploitation or duress" to act against national security, and that he had "conflicted allegiances."

Four months later, Dr. El-Ganayni learned he would not be permitted to see or refute the alleged evidence. The hearing was short-circuited May 19 when Mr. Kupfer made what the suit calls an "apparently unprecedented" decision to intervene. Citing national security, Mr. Kupfer revoked the clearance without revealing any evidence against Dr. El-Ganayni and proclaimed the matter closed.

"We don't think that's the last word," said Mr. Walczak.

There is no constitutional right to a security clearance, but people doing classified work are supposed to retain their non-work-related free speech rights. The Code of Federal Regulations permits virtually any statement or "derogatory" information to be used against an applicant.

"There are cases that say the merits [of a denial] cannot be reviewed, but the courts do allow you to challenge the procedures," said Keith Whitson, another of Dr. El-Ganayni's attorneys.


Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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