Civil Liberties Groups Say FBI Guide Relaxes Rules for Investigating Ethnic Communities

October 29, 2009
The release of a manual on FBI investigations reveals that the spy agency gained greater power following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to investigate groups of people based on their race. The New York Times reports that the FBI started investigating Somali communities in several American cities after it learned that a Somali-American teenager was involved in a suicide bombing in Africa. The Times reports: 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 Seattle and Columbus, Ohio. The operation unfolded as the Bush administration was in the midst of relaxing some domestic intelligence-gathering rules."

FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni defends the agency's policy, saying "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." 

But civil liberties advocates, who filed a Freedom of Information lawsuit to force release of the FBI's relaxed guidelines, say racial profiling is the result. Farhana Khera, president of Muslim Advocates told The Times, "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."

The Times' Charlie Savage notes that while the FBI manual bars racial profiling, it does allow agents "to take into account ‘specific' and relevant ethnic behavior' and to ‘identify locations of concentrated ethnic communities.'"

At Tapped, group blog of The American Prospect, Adam Serwer notes the Savage piece:

Now the FBI defends doing this by using the example of the Somali extremist group Al Shabaab, and saying basically that in this case, they're looking for a group that would be located in a Somali-American community. The thing is, if the FBI is looking for signs of a Somali group in Minneapolis after a Somali-American teenager from Minneapolis participated in a suicide bombing--that's not exactly racial profiling, since it really is dependent on other factors. That isn't like stopping someone in an airport because they "look Arab," which is probably why the FBI is comfortable using it as an example.

My worry would be the FBI randomly infiltrating Muslim communities without that kind of probable cause for concern, particularly since restrictions government surveillance are so lax that the FBI is reportedly processing more information than it can handle. The government needs very little to go on before it starts collecting reams of your private information (to get a better sense of this, read the invaluable Julian Sanchez), and we're not talking about individual people here -- we're talking about the possibility that the FBI is collecting information on entire communities based on little more than race or ethnic origin, in an age where the attorney general and the president are both black. Incidentally, Eric Holder wants to leave the "relaxed" guidelines in place to "to see how well they work."