The ACLU would like to remind Americans that, while the NSA has been truly awful, it hasn't completely cornered the market on overreaching surveillance programs and civil liberty trampling. As it points out, the initial leak from Ed Snowden dealt with a bulk phone records court order that was issued jointly for the NSA AND the FBI.
The FBI may seem like a silent partner these days, but it too has its own history of excesses, abuses and overreach.
Since 9/11, the FBI has once again transformed itself into a domestic intelligence agency with the unprecedented power to peer into the lives of ordinary Americans and secretly amass data about people not suspected of any wrongdoing. Through laws passed by Congress, such as the PATRIOT Act, as well as revisions to internal investigative guidelines meant to curb the abuses of the past, the FBI now has the authority to investigate and collect information on Americans without any evidence that they've committed a crime.
With so much power, the result was predictable.
Over the last 12 years, FBI agents have abused the new powers they were given to unfairly target immigrants, racial and religious minorities, and political dissidents for surveillance, infiltration, investigation, and disruption. Specifically, the ACLU has uncovered and documented persistent abuses, including warrantless wiretapping, racial and religious profiling, biased counterterrorism training materials, politically motivated investigations, abusive detention and interrogation practices, and misuse of the No-Fly List to recruit informants.
There's a ton of info in the ACLU's report, and while most of it isn't new
, it's still a very thorough breakdown of systemic abuse in the investigative agency. Unlike the NSA, the FBI doesn't necessarily have to take a hands-off approach to Americans or their data. If anything, the FBI is a bigger threat to American citizens and their civil liberties because its domain is primarily the US.
The FBI and NSA are nearly indistinguishable in terms of post-9/11 behavior, as the paper's introduction points out.
[M]odern technological innovations have significantly increased the threat to American liberty by giving today’s FBI the capability to collect, store, and analyze data about millions of innocent Americans. The excessive secrecy with which it cloaks these domestic intelligence gathering operations has crippled constitutional oversight mechanisms. Courts have been reticent tochallenge government secrecy demands and, despite years of debate in Congress regarding the proper scope of domestic surveillance, it took unauthorized leaks by a whistleblower to finally reveal the government’s secret interpretations of these laws and the Orwellian scope of its domestic surveillance programs.
There is evidence the FBI’s increased intelligence collection powers have harmed, rather than aided, its terrorism prevention efforts by overwhelming agents with a flood of irrelevant data and false alarms. Former FBI Director William Webster evaluated the FBI’s investigation of Maj. Nadal Hasan prior to the Ft. Hood shooting and cited the “relentless” workload resulting from a “data explosion” within the FBI as an impediment to proper intelligence analysis.
Lack of oversight? Excessive secrecy? Too much data? The FBI has all the same bad traits as its security counterpart.
Here's some more from the report.
In 2008, the US Attorney General granted the FBI permission to utilize investigations called "assessments" which required no predicate and granted the agency power to conduct these as though they were actual
investigations and use all the tools normally available. The FBI was only too happy to take the AG up on his offer.
In a two-year period from 2009 to 2011, the FBI opened over 82,000 “assessments” of individuals or organizations, less than 3,500 of which discovered information justifying further investigation.
Beyond these 82,000 fishing expeditions, the FBI also misused National Security Letters in order to bypass the very minimal restrictions its data collection efforts were subjected to.
A 2007 Inspector General audit revealed that from 2003 through 2005 the FBI issued over 140,000 National Security Letters —secret demands for certain account information from telecommunications companies, financial institutions, and credit agencies that require no judicial approval — almost half of which targeted Americans.
The FBI's abuse of the NSLs
goes even further than the fact that the agency nearly continuously wrote itself blank surveillance checks for three straight years. The ACLU notes that the agency so thoroughly abused the program that it truly had no idea how many
letters had been issued. An audit of the program also found that 60% of the audited files had no supporting documentation and that 22% contained at least one unreported legal violation.
A second audit report in 2008 failed to find any signs of improvement, but it did uncover signs of an agency trying to cover its tracks.
High-ranking FBI officials improperly issued eleven “blanket National Security Letters” in 2006 seeking data on 3,860 telephone numbers, in an effort to hide that the data had been illegally collected with “exigent letters."
"Exigent letters" being only one of the means the FBI used to illegally acquire data. The report goes on to mention the infamous Post-It notes
and other collection methods… like reading over a telco employee's shoulder.
It's all in this report. The spying on journalists
. The racial profiling
. The investigations of activist groups
. The ACLU even makes a note of a report that shows the spirit of J. Edgar still lives on in certain agents.
In a document that reads as if it were written during the Hoover era, an FBI agent describes the peace group Catholic Worker as having “semi-communistic ideology.”
Post-9/11, the agency became unstoppable, even considering the excesses of the Hoover era.
During the FBI’s relentless investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks, for instance, The New York Times reported that several people falling under suspicion lost jobs, were placed on watch lists, had citizenship and visa applications denied, and personal relationships destroyed. The FBI publicly hounded bioterrorism researcher Steven Hatfill for over a year, following him so closely with up to eight FBI surveillance cars that one of them once ran over his foot. FBI officials later acknowledged Hatfill was completely innocent, and the Justice Department paid him $4.6 million in damages.
The FBI then turned its sights on another researcher, Bruce Ivins, who suffered a mental breakdown and committed suicide.
The FBI, like the NSA, is also very proud of its haystacks and haystack-building programs.
An FBI budget request for fiscal year 2008 said the FBI had amassed databases containing 1.5 billion records, and two members of Congress described documents predicting the FBI would have 6 billion records by 2012, which they said would represent “20 separate ‘records’ for each man, woman and child in the United States.”
And despite all of this data, terrorists continued to slip through the FBI (and NSA's) grasp. The House Homeland Security Committee pointed out shortly after the Boston Bombing that Tamerlan Tsarnaev
was the sixth
terrorist attack by a "person previously known to the FBI or CIA."
And as the FBI seeks out new sources of data to add to the billions of records it's already drowning in, it's continuing to lie and obfuscate in order to grab more and hold onto it longer.
A tax fraud prosecution in Arizona revealed that the FBI has been failing to inform judges about the particularly invasive nature of “Stingray” devices when it seeks to obtain court orders for location information…
The ACLU of Northern California obtained Justice Department documents showing the FBI has been obtaining pen register orders—which authorize the government to obtain telephone numbers called from and received by a particular mobile device based on a relevance determination—to obtain location data using IMSI catchers, without telling the magistrate judges that this invasive technology would be used.
As was stated earlier, much of what's included here has been uncovered before, but the ACLU's comprehensive report leaves no stone unturned (and no footnote unlinked) in its takedown of an agency whose actions over the last decade have become increasingly abusive.
The FBI doesn't deserve to be let off the hook simply because the national debate on civil liberties and safety is mainly focused on the NSA's actions. It has proven to be just as careless in regards to respecting the rights of Americans and just as bold in its overreach.