Lower Standards for Domestic Surveillance Leads to Thousands Targeted by FBI

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March 31, 2011

Months after the standards governing domestic intelligence collection were lowered, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) initiated over 11,000 “assessments” of people and groups across the U.S.. According to a March 26, 2011 New York Times article, the overwhelming majority of inquiries between December 2008 to March 2009 did not trigger more substantial investigations, and it is not known if any charges resulted from the inquiries. Civil liberty advocates have criticized the relaxed rules that govern the FBI’s standards as fostering an environment “ripe for abuse.” The New York Times obtained the data after filing a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act. 

According to FBI guidelines which went into effect in December 2008, “no particular factual predication” about a subject is required to open an "assessment." Agents are permitted to use ethnicity, religion or speech protected by the First Amendment as a factor in determining who they target. The guidelines also permit the use of confidential informers to infiltrate organizations and the following and photographing of people in public places.  Some of the information agents collect remains in law enforcement databases indefinitely.

Privacy advocates contend that the large number of assessments did not turn up signs of wrongdoing demonstrates that the FBI guidelines contain too low a threshold for starting an inquiry. Michael German, Policy Counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union said, “These are investigations against completely innocent people that are now bound up within the F.B.I.’s intelligence system forever.” German and other privacy advocates have called for stronger standards. “What they should be doing is working within stricter guidelines that help them focus on real threats rather than spending time chasing shadows,” he said.

This finding comes on months after a September 2010 report by the DOJ Inspector General found the FBI had improperly monitored anti-war and environmental activists between 2001 and 2006.  According to the report, FBI agents investigated activists for "factually weak" reasons and even placed individuals from some of the groups on terrorism watch lists.