[News] The FBI Spends a Lot of Time Spying on Black Americans

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Oct 29 12:19:06 EDT 2019


  The FBI Spends a Lot of Time Spying on Black Americans

Alice Speri - October 29, 2019

_The FBI has_ come under intense criticism after a 2017 leak 
exposed that its counterterrorism division had invented a new, unfounded 
domestic terrorism category it called “black identity extremism 
Since then, legislators have pressured the bureau’s leadership to be 
more transparent about its investigation of black activists, and a 
number of civil rights groups have filed public records requests to try 
to better understand who exactly the FBI is investigating under that 
designation. Although the bureau has released hundreds of pages of 
documents, it continues to shield the vast majority of these records 
from public scrutiny.

The sheer volume of documents those surveillance efforts have produced 
is troublesome, advocates say. The latest batch 
of FBI documents 
— obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union and the racial justice 
group MediaJustice and shared with The Intercept — reveals that between 
2015 and 2018, the FBI dedicated considerable time and resources to 
opening a series of “assessments” into the activities of individuals and 
groups it mostly labeled “black separatist extremists.” This designation 
was eventually folded 
into the category of “black identity extremism.” Earlier this year, 
following an onslaught of criticism from elected officials, civil 
liberties advocates, and even some law enforcement groups, the FBI 
claimed that it had abandoned 
the “black identity extremism” label, substituting it for a “racially 
motivated violent extremism. ” Critics say that this designation 
conveniently obscures the fact that black supremacist violence, unlike 
white supremacist violence, does not actually exist.

Although the FBI has frequently changed its labels and terminology, the 
surveillance of black Americans has continued. As The Intercept has 
reported, following the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in 
Ferguson, Missouri, the FBI began spying on Ferguson activists and 
tracking their movements 
across states, warning local law enforcement partners that Islamic State 
group supporters 
were “urging” protesters to join their ranks. The FBI also drafted a 
mysterious “race paper 
the contents of which remain secret even though the bureau has disowned 
it. And as the Young Turks reported 
<https://tyt.com/stories/4vZLCHuQrYE4uKagy0oyMA/mnzAKMpdtiZ7AcYLd5cRR>, the 
bureau has established a program dubbed “Iron Fist” targeting so-called 
black identity extremists with undercover agents.

The latest documents were turned over to the ACLU and MediaJustice after 
the groups sued the FBI last March over its failure to comply with a 
public records request. While the bureau is expected to release more 
documents in the coming months, what it has turned over so far is so 
heavily redacted that it is largely incomprehensible. In addition to 
removing entire paragraphs and all geographical and other identifiers 
from the documents, the FBI simply withheld hundreds of pages in full.

“These documents suggest that since at least 2016, the FBI was engaged 
in a national intelligence collection effort to manufacture a so-called 
‘Black Identity Extremist’ threat,” Nusrat Choudhury, deputy director of 
the ACLU Racial Justice Program, told The Intercept. “They are spending 
a lot of energy on this and they are clearly reaching out to other law 

“We are troubled about the fact that so much information is not being 
made available to the public,” she added. “We just know that the 
government is likely redacting information that should be disclosed to 
the public — it frequently does.”

A bureau spokesperson wrote to The Intercept in a statement that “every 
activity that the FBI conducts must uphold the Constitution and be 
carried out in accordance with federal laws.”

“Investigative activity may not be based solely on the exercise of 
rights guaranteed by the First Amendment,” the spokesperson added. “The 
FBI’s investigative methods are subject to multiple layers of oversight, 
and we ensure that our personnel are trained on privacy, civil rights, 
and civil liberties.”

      Baseless Assessments

Most of the newly released documents are investigative files that show 
the FBI has opened a number of what bureau guidelines refer to as 
“assessments,” primarily into the activities of individuals it calls 
“black separatist extremists.” Assessments differ from full-blown 
investigations — or “predicated investigations,” in the bureau’s lingo — 
because they do not need to be predicated on a factual basis. That means 
the bureau needs no evidence of criminality or a national security 
threat in order to open an assessment. Assessments need only to be 
authorized for a specific purpose, such as recruiting new informants.

As a new report 
by the civil liberties group Defending Rights & Dissent notes, when 
choosing targets for an assessment, agents are allowed to use ethnicity, 
religion, or speech protected by the First Amendment as a factor, “as 
long as it is not the only one.” As the report notes, “Even though the 
standards for opening an assessment are extraordinarily low, the FBI is 
allowed to use extremely intrusive investigative techniques in 
performing them, including physical surveillance, use of informants, and 
pretextual interviews.”

During pretextual interviews, FBI agents are not required to disclose 
their status as federal officials and can lie about the purpose of the 
interview in order to elicit incriminating statements. Agents can open 
an assessment without a supervisor’s approval for a period of 30 days, 
after which a supervisor must sign off on an extension. After 90 days, 
an assessment must be reauthorized. Assessments can be reauthorized an 
unlimited number of times, which means that the FBI can surveil 
law-abiding citizens posing no national security threat for years.


Heavily redacted FBI documents show the bureau opened a series of 
assessments to investigate black groups and individuals despite no 
evidence that they were committing crimes or posing a security threat.

Document: FBI via ACLU and MediaJustice

Many of the new documents obtained by the ACLU and MediaJustice suggest 
that the FBI repeatedly reauthorized assessments beyond their initial 
duration periods. Because of the heavy redactions, however, it is not 
clear whether the bureau has opened many different assessments or 
whether the same handful of assessments have been extended multiple 
times. While some of the assessments refer to a particular geographic 
“area of responsibility,” others do not include such a designation, 
suggesting that they may refer to nationwide assessments of certain 
groups or organizations.

The reauthorization requests released by the FBI include a series of 
questions about the objective of the assessment, whether it was 
fulfilled, and any investigative techniques deployed. Because the 
answers are fully redacted, however, it’s impossible to tell whether the 
assessments had plausible justifications. It’s also unclear whether any 
robust review led to each reauthorization or whether supervisors merely 
rubber-stamped extension requests, Choudhury said. “Unfortunately 
they’re just redacting the parts of these that would give us an 
objective check on how they’re making decisions.”

      Working With Police

In addition to paperwork relating to its multiple assessments, the new 
documents include reports of “liaisons” with organizations outside of 
the FBI and electronic communications suggesting active FBI 
collaboration with other law enforcement agencies. The bureau’s memos 
refer to a number of “strategy meetings” involving local law 
enforcement, including in the days before the first anniversary of 
Brown’s killing in Ferguson, which reignited protests. In another 
exchange, law enforcement partners were asked to contribute to 
“collecting better intelligence on possible Black Separatist Extremists.”

The documents also refer to the FBI’s work with “Joint Terrorism Task 
Forces,” which bring together agents with officers from hundreds of 
state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies. Because JTTFs are 
run by the FBI, they operate under FBI guidelines, which provide fewer 
protections for speech, privacy, and civil liberties than the rules 
governing local police and other law enforcement.

But while federal and other law enforcement cooperation is routine, 
involving local police in vague and sweeping political surveillance 
efforts is deeply problematic, critics say. In fact, threat assessment 
reports such as the one on “black identity extremism” pose a particular 
challenge to local law enforcement, said Mike German, a former FBI agent 
and vocal critic of the bureau.

“What is it telling law enforcement officers to do?” German told The 
Intercept. “Most of [these assessments] just say, ‘Be very afraid of 
this new threat,’ and they don’t give any practical advice for how to 
identify that threat, or how to distinguish that threat from legitimate 
protest, or nonviolent civil disobedience, or other First 
Amendment-protected activity that might promote some similar ideas, but 
isn’t violence. So then the solution for these police departments that 
receive it is to treat all of them as if they are potential threats.”

To activists already concerned with police violence and a lack of 
accountability, police collaboration with the FBI’s surveillance efforts 
is particularly troubling.

“This is happening at the same time when jurisdictions across the 
country, our police departments, are actively acquiring surveillance 
tools in really secretive ways, without any sort of oversight and 
regulation,” said Myaisha Hayes, an organizer with MediaJustice, in an 
interview. “And it makes me worry that those tools can be used against 
activists given the sort of environment that the FBI is creating around 
criminalizing dissent.”

Throughout the documents, the FBI repeats boilerplate warnings that some 
“indicators” of domestic terrorism “may constitute the exercise of 
rights guaranteed by the First Amendment” and reminds agents that “the 
FBI is prohibited from engaging in investigative activity for the sole 
purpose of monitoring the exercise of First Amendment rights.”

Even so, the documents suggest that the bureau did in fact target 
protected speech as part of its surveillance activities, at some point 
monitoring the October 2015 “Million Man March” in Washington, D.C. 
While most of the memo concerning the march is redacted, the document 
does refer to the “violent rhetoric and nature” of the event — even 
though the march was in fact a nonviolent demonstration that drew tens 
of thousands 
to the capital to commemorate the original 1995 event and protest a 
series of high-profile police killings of black men.

While the FBI has a long history of targeting black Americans — most 
notably when it infiltrated and sought to disrupt the civil rights 
movement as part of its COINTELRPO political policing campaign — the 
bureau has in recent years shifted its target from those espousing 
“separatist” views to the much larger group of those protesting police 
violence. As The Intercept has reported 
in an internal email exchange obtained by the government transparency 
group Property of the People, Michael F. Paul, an official with the 
FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, wrote to colleagues that the bureau had 
updated its definition of “black separatist extremism” in order “to 
broaden it beyond simply those seeking ‘separatism.’” Paul added: “The 
threat or movement has simply evolved, and many are seeking more 
than/other than separation.”

In fact, what those in the targeted “movement” say they are seeking is 
simply an end to police violence, as well as greater justice and 
government accountability.

“The Black Lives Matter movement, black-led organizations that are 
focused around policing and police brutality have not had a single 
incident of violence associated with their activist work,” Hayes told 
The Intercept. “That tells me that what the FBI is looking for is 
opportunities to basically disrupt organizing that challenges and 
threatens the status quo.”

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