• Sun, Jun 19, 2011
By Dawud Walid
News that the FBI is providing new, virtually unchecked leeway to its agents to scrutinize citizens without sound predication opens the door to further abuse of power by the bureau’s agents.
Current standards, instituted in the final days of the Bush administration, of initiating low-level investigations called “threat assessments” are already criticized by civil libertarians as highly problematic. Under the latest guidelines signed by former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, the FBI has the authority to initiate assessments on persons of interest without predication that such persons are involved in any criminal or terrorist activities. Agents also may misrepresent themselves to gather information, conduct physical surveillance, task informants with attending meetings and religious gatherings and obtain grand jury subpoenas to gather information from various databases. Such assessments to “proactively” probe the activities of so-called suspicious persons and organizations, however, have limited authorization to be undertaken by agents after making an inquiry at their field offices. Moreover, agents are only allowed to use “surveillance squads” (agents who physically follow persons) once per assessment regarding physical surveillance.
According to a New York Times article titled “F.B.I. agents get leeway to rush privacy bounds,” the FBI will soon expand its agents’ authority to be free from the need to notate their decisions for opening an assessment and be granted repeated use of “surveillance squads” before launching a full-fledged “investigation.” Additionally, agents will have the capacity to summarily snoop into individual’s private affairs — with neither sound predication nor oversight in commencing assessments.
Even prior to the latest expansion of intelligence gathering powers given to agents, Inspector General Glenn Fine concluded in 2007 that the FBI in a two-year time span violated laws and government policies approximately 3,000 times regarding collecting personal data of citizens.
During the 1980s, Congress was informed of FBI domestic intelligence gathering abuses in the name of ascertaining the loyalty of citizens during the Cold War era, thus prompting Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., to deem such expenditures of resources “a waste of time” that were not making our nation more secure. Prior to this, Americans of various ethnicities and faiths were investigated and harassed under the FBI’s infamous Counter Intelligence Program, which from 1956-71 gathered data upon thousands of citizens who were not involved in criminal or terrorist activities.
If one of the definitions of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results,” then it would be insane to think the proposed new guidelines won’t lead to abuses by overzealous agents. If we do not raise our voices to our elected officials, then we should expect our rights to further erode. Our democracy can only sustain itself if, as President Abraham Lincoln articulated, our government is “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Encroaching on the civil liberties of Americans is definitely not for the people, and the FBI’s latest guidelines are not in our best interests.
Dawud Walid is the executive director of the Michigan Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI).