The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) obtained documents using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that reveal that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is using co-called "community outreach" programs to spy and target Muslim Americans. The documents show that:
The FBI has been illegally using its community outreach programs to secretly collect and store information about activities protected by the First Amendment for intelligence purposes. . .
The FBI's blanket denial that the outreach is used as a cover for surveillance is far from credible considering WaPo's article today:
. . . the files also depict agents as recording Social Security numbers and other identifying information of people after they meet, and, in at least one instance, noting their political views. It appears that the agents are conducting follow-up investigations in some instances, but heavy redactions in the documents make it impossible to determine how far any examination might have gone.
Conducting surveillance based on First Amendment-protected activities under the auspices of "community outreach" is not only a colossal waste of law enforcement time, it is a tear in the fabric of our democracy. The FBI needs a wake-up call about the First Amendment: The First Amendment protects ideas and speech - even abhorrent ideas and speech. The dangerous misconception that any one idea or religion creates violence invites racial profiling, discrimination, and hate while doing nothing for our safety.
The latest reports of ill-advised FBI surveillance follow the disturbing trend of late to demonize all of Islam. As the Brennan Center explained in its stellar report, "Rethinking Radicalization:"
Domestic law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and state and local police departments, have stepped into the breach, developing simplistic theories, such as the “religious conveyer belt” theory, of how American Muslims become radicalized. These theories suggest, contrary to empirical social science studies, that the path to terrorism has a fixed trajectory and that each step of the process has specific, identifiable markers . . .
A 2006 FBI report and 2009 New York Police Department (NYPD) report include a "path to radicalization" with "pre-radicalization identifiers" that give a warm invitation to racial and religious discrimination:
-male, Muslim, under 35
-second or third generation immigrants, living in a diaspora community
-middle class, educated
-people who turn to a greater observance of Islam
Even more useless to law enforcement and dangerous to the First Amendment are the ridiculous references to "venues" where such potential radicals may be found:
-cab driver hangouts
-place of employment
-halal meat markets
I meet three qualifications right now. I'm at my place of employment, which is an NGO, and I'm on the Internet.
The Brennan Center report articulated the damage from this dangerously flawed thinking:
. . . . This emphasis on intelligence collection about radicalization, much of which involves First Amendment-protected speech and activities, has undermined a much-touted prong of the government’s strategy—the attempt to engage American Muslim communities in the fight against terrorism.
Members of Congress and the media have warned about the supposedly-serious "homegrown terrorism" threat, but continually fail to realize that targeting innocent Muslim Americans is a waste of precious national security resources. Other groups have warned about a growing real threat created by such fear-mongering creates a far more nefarious threat to Americans and the Constitution: Islamaphobia is written into our laws and justified by our government officials. The Center for American Progress recently published an extensive report detailing the "hate and misinformation" about Islam spread by "a small, tightly networked group of misinformation experts guiding an effort that reaches millions of Americans."
The ACLU deserves thanks for obtaining evidence of the FBI's ulterior motives and for helping push the FBI to focus its efforts on potential crime, not speech or religion. We would be much more secure with an FBI that spends less time writing down the political views of innocent Americans, and more time investigating crime.
Jesselyn Radack is National Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.