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9/11 Review Commission Suggests FBI Expand Spying on Entire Racial or Ethnic Communities

A 9/11 Review Commission report on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s efforts to implement recommendations the commission issued in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks was released. One of the report’s key aspects is how it suggests the agency should expand its domestic spying operations on entire racial or ethnic communities in the United States in order to fight terrorism.

The report [PDF] was put together by commissioners Bruce Hoffman, former adviser on counterinsurgency for the Multi-National Forces in Baghdad, Edwin Meese III, former attorney general under President Ronald Reagan implicated in the Iran-Contra and arms-for-hostages scandals, and Timothy J. Roemer, former Democratic congressman. They do not describe the FBI’s conduct as domestic spying, but, if one understands the jargon the FBI employs for its operations, it is clear what the commission advocates.

“Domain awareness” is the analyzing of racial, ethnic or religious groups. FBI analysts are looking for individuals, who are likely to radicalize and commit terrorism. It involves treating whole populations, like Muslims, in parts of cities as potential suspects even when there is no reasonable suspicion to believe they will plot attacks.

More concisely:

The report describes how critical this “cornerstone” or “centerpiece” has been to the “transformation” of the FBI into a national security agency.

Documents the American Civil Liberties Union have been able to obtain show [PDF] that “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 uses “domain analysis” to target American Muslims and Islamic institutions. [*A federal judge recently ordered the release of more documents.]

As the ACLU argued in its 2013 report on the “FBI’s unchecked abuse of authority”:

…[A] Detroit FBI field office memorandum entitled “Detroit Domain Management” asserts that “[b]ecause Michigan has a large Middle-Eastern and Muslim population, it is prime territory for attempted radicalization and recruitment” by State Department-designated terrorist groups that originate in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. 92 Based on this unsubstantiated assertion of a potential threat of recruitment by terrorist groups on the other side of the world, the Detroit FBI opened a “domain assessment” to collect and map information on all Muslims and people of Middle-Eastern descent in Michigan, treating all of them as suspect based on nothing more than their race, religion, and national origin. Collecting information about the entire Middle-Eastern and Muslim communities in Michigan is unjust, a violation of civil rights and an affront to religious freedom and American values. It’s also a surprisingly ignorant approach for an intelligence agency, because it ignores the fact that many Michigan Muslims are not Middle Eastern or South Asian…

This type of FBI activity is apparently the “cornerstone” or “centerpiece” of the agency in the post-9/11 era.

The totalitarian nature of the FBI’s expansion and reliance on this type of domestic spying on communities is fully communicated in this Orwellian paragraph, where the homeland is mentioned twice (with a capital “H”):

One might recall, in 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder announced “new rules” intended to prevent FBI agents from using racial profiling in “national security cases.” Race and ethnicity would supposedly no longer be allowed to be considered when opening a case. But none of those rules affected the widespread practice of “domain awareness” or total surveillance of entire communities.

9/11 Review Commission Acknowledges Spying on Entire Communities Didn’t Stop a Terrorist

What makes the advocacy for expansion of domestic spying operations (or the FBI’s euphemism, “domain awareness activities”) even more incredible is the section of the report on five cases the commission examined. Commissioners looked at how the FBI handled Najibullah Zazi, David Headley, Nidal Hasan, Faisal Shahzad, and Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. [See below for the Commission’s own brief description of each of the cases.]

Another euphemism for spying that the FBI employs, “community outreach” or just “outreach” appears here. What this refers to is FBI infiltration of the very communities, which are the subject of “domain awareness.” Informants or “confidential human sources” are deployed as part of HUMINT or human intelligence gathering. (It’s domestic spying.)

No FBI office was ever aware that Zazi and his associates were planning to travel to New York to launch an attack after they traveled to Pakistan and trained with al Qaeda. It took tip from outside the FBI to trigger an investigation. “Moreover, the FBI’s outreach into the Afghan and Pakistani communities in Denver and New York did not result in a community member providing information or intelligence on Zazi or his associates,” the commission notes.

In other words, the FBI had agents who infiltrated and were spying on Afghans and Pakistanis in Denver and New York and none of those operations helped the FBI stop a terrorist plot. But, still, the 9/11 Review Commission seems to favor expanding the surveillance of entire communities.

“Broader domain awareness,” commissioners contend, “might have detected [Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan] plots in the United States and perhaps Faisal Shahzad would have been identified before his attempted plot to detonate a bomb.”

Considering the agency’s stunning failure to stop Hasan, the commission calls for “accelerating the further development and refinement of an agile strategic intelligence program incorporating both HUMINT and domain awareness to identify individuals susceptible to being radicalized like Hasan, while preserving protections for First Amendment activities.”

The commission laments the fact that information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev having outbursts during sermons at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Cambridge in November 2012 and January 2013 was not reported to the FBI:

The commission is essentially is saying if Boston had a larger network of informants in Islamic institutions it would have been able to know that Tamerlan was engaged in behavior the agency now sees as evidence of radicalization and a sign he might commit an attack. Commissioners casually acknowledge that having a network of informants in mosques or cultural centers is problematic but shrug it off. Yet, plenty of people could get angry during sermons and never do what Tamerlan did. This just calls attention to the flawed understanding driven by stereotypes, which the government endorses when proposing policies like this to address radicalization.

“None of the five cases benefited from intelligence acquired through FBI recruited sources,” the commission found. Such a conclusion suggests the FBI’s efforts at total information awareness are hampering the ability to detect and thwart the very few individuals, who decide to plot actual terrorism in the United States.

Celebrating FBI’s Authority to Target People Who Will Likely Never Be Suspects of Criminal Investigations

Furthermore, the commissioners celebrate the revision of Attorney General guidelines for domestic FBI operations on October 1, 2008. The revisions by Attorney General Michael Mukasey were in response to FBI concerns that “certain restrictions” were “actively interfering” with the agency’s ability to “become an intelligence-driven agency capable of anticipating and preventing terrorist and other criminal acts as well as investigating them after they are committed.”

Here’s what the 9/11 Review Commission likes about these guidelines:

The commission claims that the guidelines “carried over substantial privacy and civil liberties protections from earlier investigative guidelines,” but the ACLU’s report from 2013 shows these guidelines gave the FBI a new power to conduct something called an “assessment,” which the commission mentions in the above paragraph. During assessments, FBI agents can “establish any factual predicate before initiating investigations so long as they claim their purpose is to prevent crime or terrorism or protect national security.”

FBI agents are able to engage in “physical surveillance,” retrieve data from “commercial databases,” deploy informants, engage in “pretext” interviews where FBI misrepresent their identities and “use grand jury subpoenas to collect subscriber information from telecommunications companies.”

These “assessments,” according to the ACLU, may be done to determine if a person may make a good FBI informant. (Note: Multiple American Muslims have sued heads of the FBI because they claim agents threatened to put them on the “No Fly List” if they refused to become informants. So, this part of the “assessment” may possibly be coercive and threatening.)

Agents also can collect identifying information, telephone numbers, email addresses, current and previous addresses, current employers and job titles, travel history, whether the person has “special licenses or permits” or “specialized training” and whether the person has purchased a weapon. All of this personal information can be shared among agencies, whether that person is innocent and not the subject of an investigation.

In August 2011, the New York Times reported the FBI had opened 82,325 assessments on individuals or groups between March 2009 and March 2011. Only 3,315 of them led to preliminary or full investigations. And, for a stage that the commission contends is so invaluable to the FBI, it sure leads to a small percentage of actual investigations.

However, with all these widespread domestic spying operations in racial or ethnic communities of the United States, it is not difficult to see how nearly 95% of terrorism-related cases from 2001-2010 contained elements of preemptive prosecution. The FBI or local law enforcement targeted and prosecuted individuals or organizations because their beliefs, ideology or religious affiliation raised “security concerns” in 376 instances.

Preemptive prosecutions include the FBI giving mentally ill Muslims the means, opportunity and the desire to commit plots because the agency decides if it does not orchestrate its own terrorism plot with this person then al Qaeda or some other group might connect with that person to launch an attack.  The agency manufactures its own terrorists by taking advantage of their economically desperate situations and using paid informants to manipulate them into planning terrorism activity.

None of this conduct, which the FBI has a long history of carrying out in Muslim communities, is troubling to the 9/11 Review Commission. The disruptive nature of sting operations, which seem to revive COINTELPRO practices from the days of J. Edgar Hoover, do not bother the commissioners.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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

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