FBI Cites Guidelines That Don't Actually Forbid Social Media Monitoring As The Reason It Was Blindsided By The January 6 Attack
from the some-monitoring-is-more-equal-than-others dept
The FBI has spent thousands on social media monitoring software. These contracts are public, making it literally unbelievable the agency has managed to stave off FOIA requests by handing out “neither confirm nor deny” non-answers. A court didn’t buy the FBI’s excuse for its Glomar, pointing out that confirming public information would not give criminals a heads-up on surveillance software the FBI is currently using.
The FBI’s inability to honestly discuss its social media monitoring programs continues. The January 6th raid on the US Capitol building has resulted in hundreds of arrests. A lot of the evidence for these prosecutions has come from social media posts by members of the ad hoc raiding party.
The FBI continues to provide contradictory responses when questioned about its social media monitoring programs. Its Congressional testimony has kind of eluded direct questions about the FBI’s incursions into First Amendment territory — something the FBI is now using to explain why it wasn’t more aware of the impending threat prior to January 6th.
Quinta Jurecic’s post for Lawfare points out the FBI lack of awareness was somewhat stunning, given the vast amount of publicly available information circulating social media prior to the Capitol raid.
The only document the FBI produced warning about Jan. 6 was a single bulletin issued by the bureau’s Norfolk, Virginia, field office. This absence of warning is particularly striking given that a significant amount of the planning for the Jan. 6 riot took place in public on social media platforms like Facebook, Gab and Parler. Anyone with a Twitter account and an hour of time to kill could have warned about the potential for violence on Jan. 6—and many did.
FBI Director Chris Wray has been questioned about the FBI’s lack of preparedness. And his responses haven’t cleared much up. According to Wray, FBI guidelines forbid agents from camping out on social media and searching for evidence of potential criminal activity.
“We’re not allowed to … just sit and monitor social media and look at one person’s posts … just in case,” Wray told the House Judiciary Committee recently.
But that’s not strictly true. The agency’s guidelines do not strictly forbid this activity. The FBI can monitor social media platforms. It just usually doesn’t. Wray says guidelines prevent agents from “collecting First Amendment activities,” but there’s nothing in the rules that says the FBI can’t monitor open-source information like public posts.
This has been Wray’s line through several hearings this year. But the guidelines say something completely different.
[A]ssessments may be undertaken proactively with such objectives as detecting criminal activities; obtaining information on individuals, groups, or organizations of possible investigative interest, either because they may be involved in criminal or national security-threatening activities or because they may be targeted for attack or victimization by such activities; and identifying and assessing individuals who may have value as human sources. For example, assessment activities may involve proactively surfing the Internet to find publicly accessible websites and services through which recruitment by terrorist organizations and promotion of terrorist crimes is openly taking place…
So, perhaps the problem was the January 6th raid was carried out by the wrong kind of terrorists. The FBI is certainly proactive when it comes to monitoring the Muslim community “just in case.” When it comes to white insurrectionists, the agency apparently just hangs back and lets things take their course until it becomes imperative for the FBI to get involved.
Wray, at best, is only partly right.
In other words, Wray is correct that the bureau needs an authorized purpose to review social media, and that First Amendment considerations are involved. But his testimony leaves out the fact that the DIOG specifically authorizes FBI employees to review social media posts potentially protected by the First Amendment under certain circumstances—circumstances that could well have been met in the case of the soon-to-be Capitol rioters. After all, wouldn’t Facebook posts announcing plans to invade a government building raise criminal or national security concerns under the FBI’s definition of “authorized purpose”?
It’s not that we should be encouraging the FBI to engage in more proactive monitoring of social media — something that’s sure to raise some First Amendment issues. It’s that the FBI has never been shy about focusing this attention on certain kinds of people while appearing to ignore others who haven’t historically been considered a threat to national security by the agency.
Perhaps this take isn’t accurate and the FBI takes a similar hands-off approach when keeping an eye on other potential threats involving less-white people. But given the FBI’s long history of utilizing social media to radicalize local adherents of Islam into attempting to commit criminal acts, it hardly seems likely the FBI follows these guidelines (the ones that don’t say what the FBI Director says they do) consistently. It has experienced this sort of colorblindness in the past. And the conclusion one can easily draw — especially when the FBI hasn’t offered up a better explanation for why it missed the warning signs for the January 6th attack — is that the agency largely feels white people are nothing to worry about.