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The Transformation of Law Enforcement Into Counter-Terrorism

I know this is normally The Dissenter’s beat, but I’ve grown pretty concerned at the shift of all law enforcement organizations into anti-terror operations. We have two more examples of that today. First, Charlie Savage writes that the FBI has stepped up their counter-terror operations.

Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation have been more likely to be hunting for potential threats to national security than for ordinary criminals in recent years, but much of the time found neither, according to newly disclosed internal information.

Data from a recent two-year period showed that the bureau opened 82,325 assessments of people and groups in search for signs of wrongdoing. Agents closed out most of the assessments, the lowest-level of F.B.I. investigation, without finding information that justified a more intensive inquiry.

Separately, the bureau also initiated 1,819 assessments during the period to identify any possible threats within particular geographic districts. That activity ranged from looking for the presence of particular organizations, like gangs or terrorist groups with definable characteristics, to evaluating other potential vulnerabilities, like a university with classified research and many foreign students.

There’s a general sense of incompetence here, that the FBI is engaged in mostly fishing expeditions. But so much of that fishing is off the pier of counter-terror. And of course, given the structure of laws around civil liberties, investigating and gathering intelligence in the name of fighting terror virtually assures expanded powers.

Far more troubling is this AP story about the NYPD partnering with the CIA to infiltrate Muslim communities.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the NYPD has become one of the country’s most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies. A months-long investigation by The Associated Press has revealed that the NYPD operates far outside its borders and targets ethnic communities in ways that would run afoul of civil liberties rules if practiced by the federal government. And it does so with unprecedented help from the CIA in a partnership that has blurred the bright line between foreign and domestic spying.

Neither the city council, which finances the department, nor the federal government, which contributes hundreds of millions of dollars each year, is told exactly what’s going on.

The department has dispatched teams of undercover officers, known as “rakers,” into minority neighborhoods as part of a human mapping program, according to officials directly involved in the program. They’ve monitored daily life in bookstores, bars, cafes and nightclubs. Police have also used informants, known as “mosque crawlers,” to monitor sermons, even when there’s no evidence of wrongdoing. NYPD officials have scrutinized imams and gathered intelligence on cab drivers and food cart vendors, jobs often done by Muslims.

So the CIA cannot spy on domestic subjects. But they can empower the NYPD to do their bidding, and provide all the tools and logistical capability necessary for the task.

Of course, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne defends this practice by saying they’re trying to stop another 9-11 and protect New Yorkers from being killed by terrorists. This is always the alibi. The ends justify the means.

It’s difficult to determine just what way of life these newly-transformed homeland security operations are protecting. It’s certainly not one that involves liberty. And as we can see by the string of failed investigations on the FBI side, it’s not even a successful transformation. It just aggrandizes power, more than anything.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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