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ACLU Releases Report on FBI’s Development Into Abusive Domestic Intelligence Enterprise

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has produced a report that fully outlines how the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has developed into an expansive domestic intelligence enterprise over the past ten to fifteen years, which has little regard for the rights of Americans and targets or undermines those rights in order to advance operations.

James Comey is now FBI director, but from September 2001 to September 4, 2013, Robert Mueller served as director. He sought a term extension to stay on past the 10-year-limit and, despite presiding over a warrantless wiretapping scandal under the administration of President George W. Bush, he was given a two-year extension and neo-COINTELPRO operations at the FBI continued to develop unchecked.

Now, before highlighting some of what is in the ACLU report, it is worth suggesting that this kind of report is in the spirit of the final report of the Church Committee, which was published in April 14, 1976, after assessing widespread abuses by agencies in conducting “intelligence activities.”

The Church Committee stated in the report:

It has become clear that if some lose their liberties unjustly, all may lose their liberties. The protections and obligations of law must apply to all. Only by looking at the broad scope of questionable activity over a long period can we realistically assess the potential dangers of intrusive government. For example, only through an understanding of the totality of government efforts over the past thirty years can one weigh the extent to which such an emphasis may ‘chill legitimate free expression and authority.

Indeed, given recent revelations on the NSA from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, what is known about the CIA’s secret rendition, detention and interrogation (RDI) program and what is described in detail in the ACLU report, “Unleashed and Unaccountable: The FBI’s Unchecked Abuse of Authority,” another Church Committee with the authority and will to investigate and confront what is uncovered about the massive abuses being committed by US intelligence domestically and abroad should be formed.

The report describes, “Every 90 days for the past seven years the FBI has obtained secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court) orders compelling telecommunications companies to provide the government with the toll billing records of every American’s telephone calls, domestic and international, on an ongoing daily basis. Other programs have collected similar data about Americans’ email and Internet activity and seized the content of their international communications, even though there was no evidence they had done anything wrong. State and local police and the general public are encouraged to report all “suspicious” people and activity to the FBI.”

“This is what a domestic intelligence enterprise looks like in our modern technological age,” the report declares.

It examines how technology has enabled the FBI to hoard data on communities and engage in racial profiling that includes citing lawful activities as suspicious to justify investigations. It notes how the FBI has targeted First Amendment-protected activities and fought to suppress whistleblowers. It details the excessive secrecy in the FBI that has helped shield the agency from accountability. It also calls attention to the dubious practices in which the FBI is using informants in investigations and how they have also used the No-Fly List to coerce individuals into becoming informants.

The report can be read here. The following are some highlights from it.

Racial and Ethnic Profiling 

The FBI is engaged in the mapping of communities in a fashion not unlike the New York Police Department. The ACLU finds, “FBI analysts make judgments based on crude stereotypes about the types of crimes different racial and ethnic groups commit, which they then use to justify collecting demographic data to map where people with that racial or ethnic makeup live.”

The FBI Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide (DIOG) drafted in 2008 indicates that the FBI believes this authorizes the FBI to “identify locations of concentrated ethnic communities in the Field Office’s domain, if these locations will reasonably aid in the analysis of potential threats and vulnerabilities, and, overall, assist domain awareness for the purpose of performing intelligence analysis. And, “Similarly, the locations of ethnically-oriented businesses and other facilities may be collected.”

Agents are also allowed to consider “focused behavioral characteristics reasonably believed to be associated with a particular criminal or terrorist element of an ethnic community” and “behavioral cultural information about ethnic or racial communities, which may be utilized by criminals or terrorists to “hide” in those communities.

The report cited an example where the Detroit FBI field office setup an operation to “collect and map information on all Muslims” because “Michigan has a large Middle-Eastern and Muslim population” and “it is prime territory for attempted radicalization and recruitment.”

In Atlanta, a 2009 memorandum showed the FBI documented “population increases among ‘black/African American populations in Georgia’ from 2000 to 2007 in an effort to better understand the purported terrorist threat from ‘Black Separatist’ groups.”  The FBI justified collecting and mapping the Chinese community because “within this community there has been organized crime for generations.”

To address concerns about the gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), the FBI conducted “overly-broad assessments” in Alabama, New Jersey, Georgia and California of communities from “Spanish-speaking countries” because the gang was started by Salvadoran immigrants.

The report points out that “Newark FBI Special Agent in Charge Michael Ward called the NYPD program ‘not effective,” saying there should be ‘an articulable factual basis’ for intelligence collection and that ‘there’s no correlation between the location of houses of worship and minority-owned businesses and counterterrorism.’ Unfortunately the FBI is not following his advice.”

Targeting First Amendment-Protected Activities

The database, eGuardian, was setup in 2009 for reports of “suspicious” behavior, which could be shared amongst state and local law enforcement agencies. The report from the ACLU indicates that eGuardian “has become a repository for improperly collected information about First Amendment-protected activities.

In 2007, the Pentagon shuttered its Threat and Local Observation (TALON) database system, which collected reports of suspicious activity near military bases, after media reports revealed that it included information about innocent and constitutionally-protected activity such as anti-war meetings and protests. The Pentagon office that ran TALON was closed, but the improperly collected data collected was turned over to the FBI, and the military now provides SARs directly to eGuardian.

Over the last ten years, the FBI has used training materials such as a textbook that “links Muslims’ political activities and opinions with their potential for violence. An essay informed agents that it would be possible to determine if a Muslim was a “militant” by asking what their opinion was on the Iraq War or “the political situation in Israel and Egypt.” If one had a “patriotic and pro-Western stance,” they could “potentially evolve into a street informant or concerned citizen.”

A 2006 FBI intelligence report, “Radicalization: From Conversion to Jihad” suggested “indicators” that one was on a “path to becoming a terrorist” included: “wearing traditional Muslim attire,” “growing facial hair,” “frequent attendance at a mosque or prayer group,” “travel to a Muslim country,” “increased activity in a pro-Muslim social group or cause,” or “proselytizing.”

“These false indicators can be expected to lead to excessive and unwarranted surveillance and intelligence collection targeting communities agents perceive to be Muslim, which fills FBI data bases with a disproportionate amount of information about Arabs, Middle-Easterners, South Asians, and African-Americans,” according to the ACLU. “Further analysis of this biased data pool using data mining tools based on these false indicators could lead to more people from these communities being selected for more intensive investigation and watch listing. It could even result in the application of an FBI “disruption strategy,” which might include scouring their records for minor violations that would not normally be investigated or charged, deportation, security clearance revocation, or employing informants to act as agents provocateur to instigate criminal activity.”

It is not just Muslims being targeted. “Anarchist Extremists” were targeted in an FBI domestic terrorism training presentation. The training focused on “passive civil disobedience,” a protest activity. Another presentation suggested “Animal Rights/Environmental Extremism” groups use “FOIA requests” to engage in “intelligence gathering” and the activists were “waging a ‘public relations war.'”

Overzealously Applying Authorities to Manipulate Minorities into Becoming Informants

Arab, Middle-Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (AMEMSA) communities have been explicitly abused by FBI agents. They go into mosques to “count the number” of them in communities and request members of these communities do “voluntary” interviews. They run “community outreach programs” to “secretly gather information” on community organizations and places of worship.

Along with these activities, the FBI pursues immigrants, “who must rely on the government to process their immigration and citizenship applications in a fair and timely manner.” An FBI training presentation on “recruiting informants in the Muslim community suggests agents exploit ‘immigration vulnerabilities’ because Muslims in the U.S. are ‘an immigrant community.'” The FBI is able to influence whether an application is denied, approved, or delayed and compel Muslim immigrants to become informants.

The FBI also has aggressively employed agents provocateurs. The report recounts this case:

In a profoundly disturbing case involving covert surveillance, the FBI in 2006 tasked informant Craig Monteilh, a convicted felon, with infiltrating several southern California mosques by pretending to convert to Islam. In a sworn affidavit, Monteilh says his FBI handlers provided him audio and video recording equipment and instructed him “to gather as much information on as many people in the Muslim community as possible.” Monteilh’s handlers did not give him specific targets, but told him to look for people with certain traits, such as anyone who studied Islamic law, criticized U.S. foreign policy, or “played a leadership role at a mosque or in the Muslim community.” Monteilh said he recorded youth group meetings, lectures by Muslim scholars, and talked to people about their problems so FBI agents could later “pressure them to provide information or become informants.” Monteilh’s handlers told him to attend morning and evening prayers because the Muslims who attended were likely “very devout and therefore more suspicious.” Monteilh said he often left the recorder unattended to capture private conversations he was not a party to, and that his handlers knew this and did not tell him to stop. He said the agent told him more than once that “if they did not have a warrant they could not use the information in court, but that it was still useful to have the information.”

Government agents are also manufacturing terrorist plots by providing the instruments to carry out the crime, choosing the targets, designing the plot and locating “gullible subjects,” who can be given “financial support or other incentives” to execute the plot. These sting operations can be elaborate with “dubious informants, many with criminal records,” who “prod the subjects to act out” and often supply them with “spiritual or political motivation, financial assistance and sophisticated military hardware at little or no cost.”

In the case of the Newburgh Four, “Stinger surface-to-air missile and plastic explosives” were provided. In a case in Chicago, the undercover agent was unable to get the defendant to raise $100 to buy “four military hand grenades” from him. The agent decided to trade him the grenades “for two used stereo speakers.”

Using the No Fly List to Force Individuals to Become Informants

There are apparently multiple cases where FBI agents have offered to take individuals off the No Fly List if they would agree to become an informant.

The ACLU describes one involving Nagib Ali Ghaleb, “a naturalized U.S. citizen residing in San Francisco, traveled to Yemen in 2010 to visit his wife and children and meet with U.S. consular officials concerning delays in his family’s previously-approved visa applications.” He was on the last part of his trip back to the United States when airline officials delayed his boarding and waited for an FBI agent to arrive.

[An FBI agent] told Mr. Ghaleb that he would not be allowed to fly back to the U.S. Ghaleb returned to Yemen and sought assistance at U.S. Embassy. He was directed to submit to an interview with FBI agents, who questioned him about his mosque and the San Francisco Yemeni community. The FBI agents asked him to become an informant for the FBI in California, but Mr. Ghaleb said he did not know any dangerous people and would not spy on innocent people in mosques. The FBI agents threatened to have Mr. Ghaleb arrested by the Yemeni government if he did not cooperate.

Another citizen, Yoans Fikre, has filed a lawsuit alleging that “agents from his hometown of Portland, Oregon, lured him to the US Embassy in Khartoum under false pretenses while he was traveling in Sudan on business and coerced him into submitting to an interview.” He was denied counsel. Agents informed him he was on the No Fly List and then said if he would become an informant, they would take him off and provide him financial compensation.

He would not become an informant and traveled to the UAE, where he was tortured. Fikre believes this torture occurred at the request of the FBI.

The No-Fly List is a prime example of a program which the FBI is involved that deprives due process rights.

It is nearly impossible for those who are placed on the No Fly List to challenge their placement and even find out why they were placed on the list. Often Americans do not find out they are on the List until they attempt to travel and are denied access to board their flight.

According to a 2009 DOJ Inspector General audit cited in the ACLU report:

…the FBI failed to nominate many subjects in the terrorism investigations that we sampled, did not nominate many others in a timely fashion, and did not update or remove watchlist records as required… We also found that 78 percent of the initial watchlist nominations we reviewed were not processed in established FBI timeframes.”

The number of US persons on the list has doubled in size since December 2009 and many of the names have been improperly placed on the list.

Recently, a federal judge ruled in an ACLU lawsuit that Americans have a “constitutionally protected interest” in flying by air and the idea that being on the list doesn’t deprive individuals of liberty, as the government has argued, ignores “realities of our modern world.” Individuals must have a process for clearing their names.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."