F.B.I. Scrutinized for Amassing Data on American Communitiesby CHARLIE SAVAGE, theunhivedmind.com
October 20th 2011
WASHINGTON — The Federal Bureau of Investigation has collected information about religious, ethnic and national-origin characteristics of American communities, according to internal F.B.I. documents made public by the American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday. Citing the materials, the group urged the Justice Department to tighten restrictions on F.B.I. powers.
The documents show that in recent years, agents identified Arab-American and Muslim communities in Michigan as a potential terrorist recruitment ground; noted an increase in the African-American population of Georgia when analyzing “Black Separatist” groups; identified Chinese and Russian communities in San Francisco as a place to look for organized crime syndicates; and highlighted Latino communities as potentially harboring the Central American gang MS-13.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the A.C.L.U. asserted that the documents showed that “the F.B.I. is illegally and unconstitutionally” targeting people for investigation based on their race or religion. It asked Mr. Holder to bar agents from considering this kind of factor; current rules forbid the use of race or ethnicity unless describing a particular suspect, but contain a broad exception for national security or border-related investigations.
The F.B.I., however, said agents were doing their jobs by analyzing potential threats within their areas of responsibility. It said that the bureau was obeying rules barring investigative activity based “solely” on religion, race or ethnicity, but that such factors could help identify particular threats as well as potential victims.
“Certain terrorist and criminal groups are comprised of persons primarily from a particular ethnic or geographic community, which must be taken into account when trying to determine if there are threats to the United States,” said Michael P. Kortan, an F.B.I. spokesman.
The files, obtained by the A.C.L.U. under the Freedom of Information Act, were produced by F.B.I. field offices as part of a strategy the F.B.I. calls “domain awareness.” That strategy has been central to the decade-long effort to transform the bureau into a domestic intelligence agency that seeks to uncover potential threats and disrupt them before they can reach fruition. This effort grew out of the failure to prevent the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Civil liberties groups say the Justice Department has gone too far in loosening restrictions on its powers.
An F.B.I. manual on investigative guidelines issued in 2008 by Michael B. Mukasey, then the attorney general, tells agents not to engage in racial profiling, but authorizes them to use religion or ethnicity as a factor — as long as it is not the only one — when selecting subjects for scrutiny. (The F.B.I. issued a revised manual to agents on Oct. 15, but has not yet made it public. An official said that the revised manual expanded by several pages a section describing what agents may and may not do in mapping communities, but that it provided greater detail, not substantive changes.)
In a conference call, Hina Shamsi, the director of the A.C.L.U.’s National Security Project, said the documents showed that the loosened rules had led to an “extremely pernicious” practice of ascribing propensity to crimes to people based on their ethnicity or religion.
“It’s counterproductive because it alienates local communities from their government, and it also sends the message that the government views prejudice as acceptable,” she said.
Michael German, a former F.B.I. agent who now works for the A.C.L.U., connected the ethnic mapping to a controversy over F.B.I. training and reference materials, first reported by Wired magazine, that portrayed all Muslims as having a proclivity for terrorism. The A.C.L.U. released additional such materials; the bureau promised last month to review its training and reference materials that refer to culture or religion.
Mr. German said the racial mapping documents and the disputed training documents showed a common “theme of mass suspicion of an entire group based on racial characteristics or religion.” He said the trained agents might be “predisposed to treating everyone from a particular group as suspect.”
The A.C.L.U. also said that since 2008, agents had been authorized to begin low-level investigations, called assessments, of a person or a group without having any prior factual basis for suspecting the target of wrongdoing. The rights group also asked Mr. Holder to eliminate that authority, and it released an F.B.I. document shedding new light on the scope of the information that agents collect in an assessment.
The document showed that agents were told to identify a target’s phone numbers, addresses and e-mail accounts and see whether they turned up anything in searches of law enforcement and intelligence databases; collecting information about the target’s job, including access to hazardous materials; uncovering a target’s overseas travel history for the past year; looking for licenses for things like firearms or explosives; and scrutinizing any other adults the target lives with.
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