Politics & Government

FBI a ‘secret domestic intelligence agency,’ ACLU says

The seal of the Department of Justice
The seal of the Department of Justice MCT

In the wake of the National Security Agency spying scandal, the American Civil Liberties Union shifted attention Tuesday to the FBI with a report that described the bureau as “a secret domestic intelligence agency.”

The report says that changes in law and policy since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have allowed the FBI to expand its intelligence-gathering and investigative authorities, infringe on Americans’ privacy and evade constitutional oversight.

The report lauded the FBI for protecting the United States from criminals, terrorists and hostile foreign agents, but it said the bureau also has “regularly overstepped the law, infringing on Americans’ constitutional rights while overzealously pursuing its domestic security mission.”

Titled “Unleashed and Unaccountable: The FBI’s Unchecked Abuse of Authority,” the report makes 15 recommendations for changes at the bureau. The group released it as James Comey is in his first month as FBI director, in hopes that the new leadership would respond to calls for evaluation and reform.

“The FBI’s role in our society has drastically changed over the past dozen years,” said Michael German, ACLU senior policy counsel and a former FBI agent. “It’s long past time for Congress to conduct a public examination of how they’re utilized and reform the FBI to protect Americans’ rights and protect their security.”

Christopher Allen, a spokesman for the FBI, declined to comment on the ACLU report.

The report cites the 2008 Attorney General’s Guidelines, which allowed for investigations called “assessments” that require no “factual predicate” and may include searches through commercial or government databases and tasking informants to gather information about individuals.

Developing technologies have enabled the FBI to collect and analyze vast amounts of information about countless Americans without any suspicion of wrongdoing, the report says.

“Protecting law-abiding citizens is really the concern here,” said Elizabeth Goitein, the co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Once upon a time – before 9/11 – the government could not go collecting information about Americans unless it had fact-based reason. That principle has fallen to the wayside.”

Despite expanded intelligence programs, including mapping Muslim and other ethnic communities, spying on political activists and collecting phone records, there’s little proof that the FBI’s efforts have made the country safer, the report says, citing the Boston Marathon bombing last April as an example. The FBI had been interviewed one of the suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, in 2011. He was killed in a gun battle with police days after the bombing.

The report says the secrecy surrounding the FBI has prevented constitutional oversight and that its exemption from the Whistleblower Protection Act has suppressed internal accountability.

“We want to give everyone an opportunity to see where we are,” German said. “We shouldn’t be reliant on leaks of classified documents rather than a constitutional mechanism working to give the public the information they need to make decisions about these authorities.”

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