William Fisher

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is charging that field offices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are engaged in “unconstitutional and widespread” ethnic and racial profiling, stereotyping certain types of crimes to entire minority communities.

As revealed in documents the ACLU has obtained so far through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), targeted communities include:

–        Arab Americans in Michigan;

–        African-Americans in Georgia;

–        Chinese and Russian-Americans in California;

–        Broad swaths of Latino-American communities in multiple states.

The FBI has also engaged in religious profiling of Muslim American communities in Michigan. “Based on false stereotypes ascribing criminal propensity to minority communities, the FBI is collecting demographic data to map where people from these communities live,” the ACLU said.

The group added, “Nationwide, the FBI is gathering reports on innocent Americans’ so-called “suspicious activity” and sharing it with unknown numbers of federal, state and local government agencies.”

In response, the ACLU said its “Mapping the FBI” initiative seeks to expose misconduct, abuse of authority, and unconstitutional profiling and other violations of Americans’ rights and liberties across the country.

“As our nation’s predominant law enforcement agency, the FBI should be tracking true threats, not wasting resources and inappropriately mapping American communities on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion. Law enforcement programs based on evidence and facts are more effective than a system based on racial stereotypes or mass suspicion,” the ACLU said.

It explained that, in the decade since 9/11, “long-standing safeguards on the FBI’s investigative and intelligence collection activities have been erased, allowing it to engage in racial and profiling and to initiate intrusive investigations with little or no suspicion of wrongdoing. Taken together, the changes in the FBI’s authority have vastly expanding its ability to engage in unlawful and abusive surveillance of innocent Americans.”

The ACLU said it is working in the courts, in Congress and in communities to “expose the ways in which the FBI’s expanded authority threatens civil rights and civil liberties.”

The group’s activities include:

Eye on the FBI: Consolidating information obtained through ACLU records requests, lawsuits and reports, the ACLU’s “Eye on the FBI” alerts provide regular and detailed analysis of FBI activities that pose a threat to civil liberties. These activities include the use of factually incorrect and bigoted biased counterterrorism materials and FBI racial profiling.

Racial and Ethnic Mapping : 34 ACLU affiliates have filed public records requests to uncover how the FBI is using racial and ethnic demographic information and data about “ethnic-oriented” business and facilities to “map” and investigate local communities. ACLU affiliates in Michigan, New Jersey and Northern California are in federal court to enforce their records requests and secure information for the public.

eGuardian : The ACLU has sued the FBI and the Justice Department to learn more about an FBI monitoring and information-sharing program known as “eGuardian,” through which the bureau collects so-called “Suspicious Activities Reports” (SARs) from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies nationwide.

Spy Files : This ACLU effort paints a comprehensive picture of the vast and expanding infrastructure of surveillance in the U.S. today by local, state and federal law enforcement–including the FBI. Documents obtained by the ACLU show that through this de facto domestic intelligence system, our government is monitoring and recording Americans’ First Amendment-protected beliefs and activities.

FBI Interviews : The ACLU is working to educate individuals and community organizations across the country about their rights when encountering law enforcement. Over the past two years, the FBI has significantly increased its use of “voluntary” interviews — especially within specific racial, ethnic, and religious communities — often encouraging interviewees to serve as informants in their communities.

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.

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.”

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.

Reaction from the Arab-American community was equally forceful.

Hassan Jaber, executive director, of ACCESS (The Arab Community Center for Economic & Social Services), said, ” The ACLU information released today sheds a disturbing spotlight on practices that should have been rendered to the dustbin of history. Our organization and many others with whom we work dedicate ourselves to the support of a vibrant American democracy. This happens when all Americans become involved in their communities.”

He added, “Unwarranted surveillance based on racial and ethnic profiling has the opposite effect, creating fear and distance among the targeted communities. This report, combined with recent news of FBI surveillance of day-to-day activities among Muslims in NY, and information about the problematic training techniques employed by the FBI, are causes for serious concern. We believe this situation demands immediate attention and examination.

Documents received by the ACLU in response to its FOIA request paint an alarming picture of FBI Field Office activities. For example:

A 2009 Detroit FBI field office memorandum references State Department-designated terrorist groups originating in the Middle East and Southeast Asia and asserts that “because Michigan has a large Middle-Eastern and Muslim population, it is prime territory for attempted radicalization and recruitment by these terrorist groups.”

A 2009 Atlanta FBI Intelligence Note purports to identify potential threats from “Black Separatist” groups (identified as including the National Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam) and documents population increases among “black/African-American populations in Georgia” from 2000 to 2007.

Two 2009 San Francisco FBI memoranda state that the “San Francisco domain is home to one of the oldest Chinatowns in North America and one of the largest ethnic Chinese populations outside mainland China,” and justify the opening of an investigation involving racial and national origin mapping because “[w]ithin this community there has been organized crime for generations.” The memoranda similarly justify mapping of the “sizable Russian population” in the region by referencing the existence of “Russian criminal enterprises” in San Francisco.

Several documents from FBI offices in Alabama, New Jersey, and Georgia show that the FBI is using the threat posed by the criminal gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), which was originally started by Salvadoran immigrants, to justify broad investigations targeting a wide variety of Latino-American communities. The Mobile, Alabama FBI’s Intelligence Note (which states that MS-13’s “primary criminal activity” in Mobile is “graffiti”) contradicts the Newark FBI’s assessment of the gang’s ethnic composition, stating that while “MS-13 members are typically Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Honduran nationals or first-generation descendants . . . MS-13 has been known to admit Mexicans, Dominicans, and non-Hispanic individuals.”   Yet the Mobile FBI office singled out and mapped demographic data for immigrants born in Central America.

The ACLU claims problems of this type emanate from a 2003 Justice Department publication, “Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies,” The guidance prohibited the DOJ from using race “to any degree” in law enforcement investigations (unless describing a specific suspect).

But it carved out a loophole permitting racial and ethnic profiling in national security and border integrity investigations. Exploiting this loophole, in 2008, the FBI issued its Domestic Investigation and Operations Guide (DIOG), which permits FBI agents to conduct Domain Management assessments, which include the authority to collect, analyze and “map” racial and ethnic demographic information and the location of ethnic-oriented business and facilities.

The DIOG also allows the FBI to collect and track “behavioral characteristics reasonably associated with a particular criminal or terrorist element of an ethnic community.” This Domain Management authority is not limited to national security and border integrity investigations.

In 2010, 34 ACLU affiliates filed coordinated FOIA requests with their local FBI field offices to uncover records showing how the FBI has used its racial and ethnic profiling authority under the Guidance on Race and the DIOG.

The ACLU is calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to:

Enforce the Guidance on Race’s prohibition against the use of race to “any degree” in law enforcement investigations;

Amend the Guidance on Race to prohibit racial and ethnic profiling without any exceptions, and to add religion and national origin to the barred profiling criteria; and

Ensure the FBI amends the DIOG to incorporate existing prohibitions on the use of race and ethnicity in FBI investigations, and to incorporate the above amendments to the Guidance on Race.


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