In all the focus on the NSA, we should not forget that the FBI is also part of the massive government intrusion into people’s privacy and in the violation their rights. The ACLU in a new report titled Unleashed and Unaccountable: The FBI’s Unchecked Abuse of Authority describes the many ways that the relaxation of rules governing how the FBI can operate (justified as always by the ‘war on terror’) has resulted in an explosion of abuses.
Here is part of the Executive Summary:
The report describes major changes to law and policy that unleashed the FBI from its traditional restraints and opened the door to abuse. Congress enhanced many of the FBI’s surveillance powers after 9/11, primarily through the USA Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments. The recent revelations regarding the FBI’s use of Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act to track all U.S. telephone calls is only the latest in a long line of abuse. Five Justice Department Inspector General audits documented widespread FBI misuse of Patriot Act authorities in 2007 and 2008. Congress and the American public deserve to know the full scope of the FBI’s spying on Americans under the Patriot Act and all other surveillance authorities.
In the full report, it says (p. 1):
Today’s FBI doesn’t just search for evidence to catch criminals, terrorists, and spies. Working with other government agencies and private companies, it helps gather information about millions of law abiding Americans, tracking our communications and associations. It has mapped American communities based on race, ethnicity, religion, and national origin and exploited community outreach programs to monitor the First Amendment activities of religious groups. It has harassed non-violent political activists with surveillance, unwarranted investigations, and even aggressive nationwide raids that resulted in no criminal charges. The FBI retains the information it collects through its investigations and intelligence activities in vast databases containing billions of records that agents can mine for myriad purposes, even without opening an official investigation or otherwise documenting their searches.
The FBI has exploited secret interpretations of the laws governing domestic surveillance to expand its reach and simply ignored other legal restrictions designed to protect our constitutional rights. It has frustrated congressional, judicial, and public oversight through excessive secrecy, official misrepresentations of its activities, and suppression of government whistleblowers and the press. Even more opaque are the FBI’s intelligence and law enforcement exploits abroad. American citizens traveling overseas have been detained by foreign governments at the behest of the U.S. government and interrogated by FBI agents. Other Americans were blocked from flying home because they were placed on the U.S. government’s No Fly List and then pressured to become FBI informants when they sought redress at U.S. Embassies. Such abuse is the inevitable product of a deliberate effort by Congress, two presidents, and successive attorneys general to vest the FBI with the powers of a secret domestic intelligence agency.
In another report, the ACLU’s staff attorney Nusrat Choudhury says that the FBI uses the infamous no-fly lists to coerce people into becoming informants, targeting them when they are in foreign countries, especially repressive ones, telling them that if they do not agree, they will be left in the hands of the local security forces.
FBI agents put this pressure on ACLU clients Abe Mashal, a Marine veteran; Amir Meshal; and Nagib Ali Ghaleb. Each of these Americans spoke to FBI agents to learn why they were suddenly banned from flying and to clear up the errors that led to that decision. Instead of providing that explanation or opportunity, FBI agents offered to help them get off the No-Fly List—but only in exchange for serving as informants in their communities.Our clients refused.
The ACLU’s report, Unleashed and Unaccountable: The FBI’s Unchecked Abuse of Authority explains what happened to Nagib Ali Ghaleb. Nagib was denied boarding when trying to fly home to San Francisco after a trip to visit family in Yemen. Stranded abroad and desperate to return home, Nagib sought help from the U.S. embassy in Yemen and was asked to submit to an FBI interview. FBI agents offered to arrange for Nagib to fly back immediately to the United States if he would agree to tell the agents who the “bad guys” were in Yemen and San Francisco. The agents insisted that Nagib could provide the names of people from his mosque and the San Francisco Yemeni community. The agents said they would have Nagib arrested and jailed in Yemen if he did not cooperate, and that Nagib should “think about it.” Nagib, however, did not know any “bad guys” and therefore refused to spy on innocent people in exchange for a flight home.
Nagib’s experience is far from unique. After Abe Mashal was denied boarding at Chicago’s Midway Airport, FBI agents questioned him about his religious beliefs and practices. The agents told Abe that if he would serve as an informant for the FBI, his name would be removed from the No-Fly List and he would receive compensation. When Abe refused, the FBI promptly ended the meeting.
Neither Nagib nor Abe present a threat to aviation security. But FBI agents sought to exploit their fear, desperation, and confusion when they were most vulnerable, and to coerce them into working as informants. Moreover, the very fact that FBI agents asked Nagib and Abe to spy on people for the government is yet another indication that the FBI doesn’t actually think either man is a suspected terrorist. This abusive use of a government watch list underscores the serious need for regulation, oversight, and public accountability of an FBI that has become unleashed and unaccountable.
We only hear from the people who resisted such coercion and were willing to speak openly despite legitimate fears of retaliation by the US government that has repeatedly shown that it is willing to act thuggishly to get its way. So this raises the question of how many people have been successfully coerced in this way? And how many totally innocent people have now ended up on the government’s lists of suspected terrorists because such coerced people felt obliged to provide some names in order to be removed from the no-fly list?
This kind of thing stirs disturbing memories of the Communist witch hunts and the infamous House Un-American Activities committee where people were coerced into ‘naming names’ and inform on their family, friends, and acquaintances by threatening them with punishments if they refused to do so.