Illegal FBI Spying on Community Groups – by Stephen Lendman
On December 1, an ACLU of Northern California press release headlined, “FOIA Documents Show FBI Illegally Collecting Intelligence Under Guise of Community Outreach,” saying:
“The trust that community outreach efforts aim to create is undermined when the FBI exploits these programs to gather intelligence on the very members of the religious and community organizations agents are meeting with.”
“The FBI should be honest with community organizations about what information is being collected during meetings and purge any improperly collected information.”
Instead, FBI agents illegally collected names, ID information, opinions of community event attendees, as well as sponsoring groups, including their goals, activities, names and positions of leaders, and their racial, ethnic, and national origin.
The FBI Directorate of Intelligence Domain Management program maintains the information to “assess threats, vulnerabilities, gaps and new opportunities for intelligence collection.”
In fact, community outreach programs are a way to establish communications, mutual understanding and trust between government agencies and public groups. Using them for covert intelligence gathering shows authorities operate lawlessly for their own purposes.
In fact, FBI documents reveal Privacy Act violations in gathering information about individuals’ First Amendment activities.
ACLU Documents Obtained
A 2009 San Jose FBI memorandum described its participation in an Assyrian organization’s lawful career day. Nonetheless, recorded information obtained included leader identities, content of their conversations, backgrounds, travel histories, education, occupation, and charitable work.
Information was then sent to the FBI’s San Francisco Division.
A 2009 Sacramento FBI memorandum explained California State University, Chico conversations with a student about the Saudi Student Association, including its size, purpose and activities. Detailed information on the student was collected.
A 2009 San Francisco memorandum documented information on a Pakistani community organization. It included material on its First Amendment-protected activities, as well as identities of its officers, directors and advisors.
San Francisco 2007 and 2008 memoranda dealt with Ramadan Iftar dinner attendees “under the guise of the FBI’s mosque outreach program.” Detailed information about them was collected.
A 2007 San Jose memorandum documented a mosque outreach meeting attended by 50 individuals from 27 Muslim community and religious organizations. Demographic information about them was collected.
FBI community outreach programs are supposed to operate out of the Agency’s Office of Public Affairs. Its programs include:
Since 2005 or earlier, FOIA obtained documents reveal Agency covert use of community outreach programs to collect First Amendment-protected activities for intelligence purposes, not legal ways to promote mutual understanding and cooperation.
In 2005, the FBI linked its Citizens’ Academy outreach activities to its InfraGard Program – an association of private sector and law enforcement agencies “dedicated to sharing information and intelligence to prevent hostile acts against the United States.”
Then and later, Agency efforts collected intelligence covertly as part of Washington’s “war on terror.” In 2008, the FBI Directorate of Intelligence formally linked community outreach activities to intelligence gathering under the Agency’s Domain Management program.
It was done to “enhance the….network of contacts with community leaders….who can assist the FBI and fellow federal, state and local law enforcement and intelligence agencies in combating terrorism.”
Information obtained violated Privacy Act provisions that prohibit federal agencies from collecting and maintaining records:
“describing how any individual exercises rights guaranteed by the First Amendment unless expressly authorized by statute or by the individual about whom the record is maintained or unless pertinent to and within the scope of an authorized law enforcement activity.”
The Privacy Act also prohibits federal agencies from collecting information “for a particular purpose from being used or made available for another purpose” without explicit consent of targeted individuals and/or groups.
However, community members weren’t informed that Agency outreach was for intelligence, and potentially could be used to subject them to investigations on suspicions of terrorism involvement.
The Muslim Community Association (MCA) was affected. Its Board Secretary Isa Shaw said:
“Like all Americans, we want to help the FBI. Now we feel betrayed. We support the idea of building trust through FBI outreach programs, but the government should not be taking advantage of it to violate out First Amendment rights like this.”
With great concern, other targeted groups feel the same way, especially when legal activities can be manipulated and interpreted to be terrorist related.
Other Federal, State and Local Spying Activities
The ACLU released numerous reports of illegal spying. They include federal, state and local SARs (suspicious activity reporting) programs that encourage police, intelligence and homeland security officials, emergency responders, and members of the public to spy on neighbors, and report “suspicious” activities to authorities.
In an environment of fear, legal activities may be misinterpreted. Innocent people end up on terrorist watch lists. Their names and vital information get in law enforcement/intelligence data bases. As a result, their personal safety and reputations are henceforth jeopardized.
Fusion centers and other intelligence sharing systems enable easy access for the Joint Terrorism Task Forces and Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Information Sharing Environment (ISE), as well as local law enforcement officials.
In Terry v. Ohio (1968), the Supreme Court established “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity as the standard for police stops to investigate further.
Under Title 28, Part 23 of the Code of Federal Regulations, law enforcement agencies getting federal funds “shall collect and maintain criminal intelligence information (on an individual) only if there is reasonable suspicion (of involvement) in criminal conduct or activity,” and what’s collected is relevant.
However, suspicious activities reporting (SARs) threaten civil liberties by encouraging harmful indiscriminate spying.
A June 2010 ACLU report titled, “Policing Free Speech: Police Surveillance and Obstruction of First Amendment-Protected Activity” highlighted today’s danger. It also cited law enforcement’s long history of illegally spying on US citizens and obstructing lawful political activity.
As a result, federal, state and local authorities “across America continue to monitor and harass groups and individuals for….peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights.” Community outreach investigations represent one of many illegal activities threatening law abiding Americans. Muslims are especially affected.
They and others have been monitored and harassed for engaging in marches, protests, organizing, having “unusual viewpoints, and engag(ing) in normal, innocuous behaviors such as writing notes or taking photographs in public.”
A February 2011 Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) report titled, “Patterns of Misconduct: FBI Intelligence Violations from 2001 – 2008” reviewed nearly 2,500 FOIA-obtained document pages.
They revealed “alarming (lawless) trends,” and suggest far more frequent civil liberty violations than previously known, including:
(1) grossly understated numbers;
(2) long delays between violations and reporting them;
(3) types of violations involved, including:
(a) investigative oversight;
(b) “abuse, misuse, or careless use of….National Security Letter (NSL) authority;” FBI, CIA and other government agencies use them (administrative subpoenas), demanding recipients turn over requested information and remain silent; no probable cause or judicial oversight is necessary;
(c) sidestepping constitutional, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and other legal principles; and
(d) complicity of ISPs, phone companies, financial institutions and credit agencies, supplying unauthorized personal information without their customers’ knowledge or consent.
(4) flagrant abuses, including false declarations to courts, supplying bogus evidence to get indictments, and accessing protected documents without warrants.
Violations of federal law governing criminal investigations and intelligence gathering activities are especially flagrant, brazen and egregious. They include willfully making false written statements to courts, and supplying bogus information to get indictments of innocent people.
Because of FBI secrecy and coverup, it’s impossible to know the full extent of its lawlessness, how many people were harmed, and for what reasons.
Yet from what’s known, “the frequency and type of violations revealed….are staggering.” Minimally, greater accountability and oversight are needed.
Post-9/11, Muslims especially are targeted for their faith, ethnicity, and at times prominence and charity. As a result, they’re ruthlessly vilified and exploited as “war on terror” scapegoats for political advantage.
Innocent victims are entrapped, arrested, tried on secret evidence, convicted on bogus charges, and incarcerated as political prisoners.
As a result, Muslim organizations need protection from government outreach and other efforts targeting them lawlessly.
Today, they’re more than ever vulnerable. Everyone should embrace their struggle against FBI and police functioning as enforcers for crime bosses, not everyone they’re sworn to protect.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.