Since September 11th, the FBI has radically expanded and abused its authority in the name of fighting terrorism. Much of this came with the blessing of the U.S. Congress and attorney general, but even with loosened legal restraints, the FBI has repeatedly reached for more power to surveil, harass, and infiltrate communities based on their political beliefs and their race and religion.
Earlier this month, James B. Comey became the 7th director of the FBI, replacing Director Robert S. Mueller III. Civil liberties groups are calling on Congress to use this transition as an opportunity to investigate and overhaul a law enforcement agency that has acquired sweeping powers, and has rampantly abused them.
The American Civil Liberties Union recently released a new report that documents these violations. “Unleashed and Unaccountable: The FBI’s Unchecked Abuse of Authority” is a comprehensive look at the FBI’s post-9/11 evolution. Drawing from that report, and from my own reporting, here are 12 ways the FBI has overstepped its authority:
1. Spying on law-abiding Americans.
Section 215 of the Patriot Act expanded the FBI’s ability to use secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court [FISC[ orders to force telecommunications companies to turn over records of every American’s telephone calls, and the bureau has been doing this every 90 days for the past seven years. Such widespread surveillance hasn’t improved the FBI’s ability to prevent terrorist attacks; in fact it may be hindering them. Former FBI Director William Webster cited a “relentless” workload resulting from a “data explosion” within the FBI as a roadblock to effective analysis.
2. Exaggerating and manufacturing terrorism plots.
Trevor Aaronson’s excellent new book The Terror Factory documents the FBI’s rampant abuse of informants in terrorism cases, and how those informants are used to manufacture phony plots so that the FBI can claim a victory in the War or Terror. The tactic has becoming shockingly commonplace. For example, the FBI paid an informant named “Anna” to befriend activists and pressure them into illegal activity — one activist, Eric McDavid, is now in prison for 20 years on “conspiracy” charges. In another case, the FBI supplied the Occupy “terrorists” that it arrested before May Day.
3. Racial profiling and community mapping.
The FBI’s Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide authorizes the FBI to “identify locations of concentrated ethnic communities in the Field Office’s domain, if these locations will reasonably aid in the analysis of potential threats and vulnerabilities, and, overall, assist domain awareness for the purpose of performing intelligence analysis… Similarly, the locations of ethnically-oriented businesses and other facilities may be collected…”
4. Training FBI agents to believe dissent is criminal.
FBI training presentations on “domestic terrorists” focus on lawful protest activity and media campaigns by animal rights and environmental activists, and describe anarchists as “criminals seeking an ideology.
5. Raiding homes based on people’s political beliefs.
In Oregon and Washington last year, Joint Terrorism Task Forces raided homes of political activists in search of “anarchist literature” and black flags.
6. Harassing political activists.
For instance, the New York Times reported on the case of Scott Crow, a Texas activist who obtained his FBI file and learned of FBI surveillance outside his home and work for many years. An Inspector General report concluded that FBI’s investigations of protest groups were “factually weak” and in some cases purely “speculative.” The Inspector General also criticized the bureau for treating non-violent civil disobedience as "terrorism."
7. Spying on journalists.
As the ACLU report notes: “In 2010, the Inspector General reported that the FBI used an illegal ‘exigent letter’ to obtain the telephone records of seven New York Times and Washington Post reporters and researchers during a media leak investigation, circumventing Justice Department regulations requiring the attorney general’s approval before issuing grand jury subpoenas for journalists’ records. The FBI obtained and uploaded 22 months’ worth of data from these reporters’ telephone numbers, totaling 1,627 calls.
8. Allowing real threats to slip through the cracks.
As the FBI spends its time investigating and harassing political activists and immigrant communities, violent attacks like the 2011 Boston Marathon bombing continue. And right-wing violence is up 400%, according to this West Point study.
9. Labeling non-violent undercover investigators as terrorists.
This FBI file shows that the bureau has considered terrorism charges for activists who photograph animal cruelty on factory farms.
10. Sidestepping oversight.
A 2005 audit by the Inspector General found that more than half of all FBI inquiries that extended beyond the 180-day authorization period had no documentation. In other words, people were under investigation for an entire year with no evidence of wrongdoing.
11. Detaining international travelers.
Americans are being prevented from traveling domestically because of no-fly lists, and also detained and interrogated abroad at the urging of the FBI. For example, an American teenager named Gulet Mohamed was jailed, beaten, and threatened in Kuwait on a trip to visit his family. He was later interrogated by FBI agents, without counsel, and put on the No Fly List, which meant he was stranded overseas. He was never charged with a crime.
12. And what else?
This list will only continue to grow, because as the ACLU explains, “The public doesn’t know the full extent of the FBI’s domestic surveillance activities because so much of it takes place in secret.”
It’s time for a full, thorough investigation of the FBI’s abuses, and the enactment of meaningful checks and balances against future violations. As Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, told the Washington Post: “The list of abuses is long and demonstrates that Congress must do a top-to-bottom review of FBI politics and practices to identify and curtail any activities that are unconstitutional or easily misused. The time for wholesale reform has come.”