[Ppnews] Loosening of F.B.I. Rules Stirs Privacy Concerns

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Oct 29 10:17:59 EDT 2009

October 29, 2009

Loosening of F.B.I. Rules Stirs Privacy Concerns


WASHINGTON ­ After a Somali-American teenager 
from Minneapolis committed a suicide bombing in 
Africa in October 2008, the 
Bureau of Investigation began investigating 
whether a Somali Islamist group had recruited him on United States soil.

Instead of collecting information only on people 
about whom they had a tip or links to the 
teenager, agents fanned out to scrutinize Somali 
communities, including in Seattle and Columbus, 
Ohio. The operation unfolded as the Bush 
administration was relaxing some domestic intelligence-gathering rules.

The F.B.I.’s interpretation of those rules was 
recently made public when it released, in 
response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit, its 
Investigations and Operations Guide.”; The 
disclosure of the manual has opened the widest 
window yet onto how agents have been given 
greater power in the post-Sept. 11 era.

In seeking the revised rules, the bureau said it 
needed greater flexibility to hunt for would-be 
terrorists inside the United States. But the 
manual’s details have alarmed privacy advocates.

One section lays out a low threshold to start 
investigating a person or group as a potential 
security threat. Another allows agents to use 
ethnicity or religion as a factor ­ as long as it 
is not the only one ­ when selecting subjects for scrutiny.

“It raises fundamental questions about whether a 
domestic intelligence agency can protect civil 
liberties if they feel they have a right to 
collect broad personal information about people 
they don’t even suspect of wrongdoing,” said Mike 
German, a former F.B.I. agent who now works for 
Civil Liberties Union.

But Valerie Caproni, the F.B.I.’s general 
counsel, said the bureau has adequate safeguards 
to protect civil liberties as it looks for people who could pose a threat.

“Those who say the F.B.I. should not collect 
information on a person or group unless there is 
a specific reason to suspect that the target is 
up to no good seriously miss the mark,” Ms. 
Caproni said. “The F.B.I. has been told that we 
need to determine who poses a threat to the 
national security ­ not simply to investigate 
persons who have come onto our radar screen.”

The manual authorizes agents to open an 
“assessment” to “proactively” seek information 
about whether people or organizations are 
involved in national security threats.

Agents may begin such assessments against a 
target without a particular factual 
justification. The basis for such an inquiry 
“cannot be arbitrary or groundless speculation,” 
the manual says, but the standard is “difficult to define.”

Assessments permit agents to use potentially 
intrusive techniques, like sending confidential 
informants to infiltrate organizations and 
following and photographing targets in public.

F.B.I. agents previously had similar powers when 
looking for potential criminal activity. But 
until the recent changes, greater justification 
was required to use the powers in national 
security investigations because they receive less judicial oversight.

If agents turn up something specific to suggest 
wrongdoing, they can begin a “preliminary” or 
“full” investigation and use additional 
techniques, like wiretapping. But even if agents 
find nothing, the personal information they 
collect during assessments can be retained in 
F.B.I. databases, the manual says.

When selecting targets, agents are permitted to 
consider political speech or religion as one 
criterion. The manual tells agents not to engage 
in racial profiling, but it authorizes them to 
take into account “specific and relevant ethnic 
behavior” and to “identify locations of concentrated ethnic communities.”

Farhana Khera, president of Muslim Advocates, 
said the F.B.I. was harassing Muslim-Americans by 
singling them out for scrutiny. Her group was 
among those that sued the bureau to release the manual.

“We have seen even in recent months the 
revelation of the F.B.I. going into mosques ­ not 
where they have a specific reason to believe 
there is criminal activity, but as ‘agent 
provocateurs’ who are trying to incite young 
individuals to join a purported terror plot,” Ms. 
Khera said. “We think the F.B.I. should be 
focused on following actual leads rather than 
putting entire communities under the microscope.”

Ms. Caproni, the F.B.I. lawyer, denied that the 
bureau engages in racial profiling. She cited the 
search for signs of the Somali group, 
Shabaab, linked to the Minneapolis teenager to 
illustrate why the manual allows agents to 
consider ethnicity when deciding where to look. 
In that case, the bureau worried that other such 
teenagers might return from Somalia to carry out domestic operations.

Agents are trained to ignore ethnicity when 
looking for groups that have no ethnic tie, like 
environmental extremists, she said, but “if you 
are looking for Al Shabaab, you are looking for Somalis.”

Among the manual’s safeguards, agents must use 
the “least intrusive investigative method that 
effectively accomplishes the operational 
objective.” When infiltrating an organization, 
agents cannot sabotage its “legitimate social or 
political agenda,” nor lead it “into criminal 
activity that otherwise probably would not have occurred.”

Portions of the manual were redacted, including 
pages about “undisclosed participation” in an 
organization’s activities by agents or 
informants, “requesting information without 
revealing F.B.I. affiliation or the true purpose 
of a request,” and using “ethnic/racial demographics.”

The attorney general guidelines for F.B.I. 
operations date back to 1976, when a 
Congressional investigation by the so-called 
Church Committee uncovered decades of illegal 
domestic spying by the bureau on groups perceived 
to be subversive ­ including civil rights, 
women’s rights and antiwar groups ­ under the 
bureau’s longtime former director, 
Edgar Hoover, who died in 1972.

The Church Committee proposed that rules for the 
F.B.I.’s domestic security investigations be 
written into federal law. To forestall 
legislation, the attorney general in the Ford 
administration, Edward Levi, issued his own 
guidelines that established such limits internally.

Since then, administrations of both parties have 
repeatedly adjusted the guidelines.

In September 2008, Attorney General 
B. Mukasey signed the new F.B.I. guidelines that 
expanded changes begun under his predecessor, 
Ashcroft, after the Sept. 11 attacks. The 
guidelines went into effect and the F.B.I. 
completed the manual putting them into place last December.

There are no signs that the current attorney 
H. Holder Jr., plans to roll back the changes. A 
spokeswoman said Mr. Holder was monitoring them 
“to see how well they work” and would make refinements if necessary.

The F.B.I., however, is revising the manual. Ms. 
Caproni said she was taking part in weekly 
high-level meetings to evaluate suggestions from 
agents and expected about 20 changes.

Many proposals have been requests for greater 
flexibility. For example, some agents said 
requirements that they record in F.B.I. computers 
every assessment, no matter how minor, were too 
time consuming. But Ms. Caproni said the rule 
aided oversight and would not be changed.

She also said that the F.B.I. takes seriously its 
duty to protect freedom while preventing 
terrorist attacks. “I don’t like to think of us 
as a spy agency because that makes me really 
nervous,” she said. “We don’t want to live in an 
environment where people in the United States 
think the government is spying on them. That’s an 
oppressive environment to live in and we don’t want to live that way.”

What the public should understand, she continued, 
is that the F.B.I. is seeking to become a more 
intelligence-driven agency that can figure out 
how best to deploy its agents to get ahead of potential threats.

“And to do that,” she said, “you need information.”

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