Unlike sanctioned investigations, assessments do not require any evidence of wrongdoing or threat to be implemented, nor are they subject to other limitations. Agents are allowed to mislead interviewees and do not have to identify themselves as federal officials. They also can select their targets based on religion, ethnicity, and other factors normally protected by the First Amendment as long as these are not the only criteria.
Numerous Freedom of Information requests submitted by civil rights activists have exposed hundreds of FBI documents related to assessing African Americans, yet these represent only a small fraction of the total. Despite calls for transparency from lawmakers, the pages that had been released were heavily redacted. Often entire pages were blacked out, and any information that might reveal the subject’s identity or location had been removed.
What could be ascertained from the most recent bunch of documents acquired as the result of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and MediaJustice was that the FBI had invested significant resources from 2015 to 2018 on assessments of “black separatist extremists.” The public backlash over this designation caused the Bureau to adopt the more inclusive label of “racially motivated violent extremism,” but critics have charged this merely masks the fact that surveillance of African Americans has never abated.
Another revelation from the recent documents was the extent of “liaisons” between the FBI and outside agencies to further the former’s information-gathering abilities. So-called “strategy meetings” with local law enforcement groups, particularly those around Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the Michael Brown killing by police there in 2014, asked cops to help them gather “better intelligence on possible Black Separatist Extremists.” The Bureau had already been spying on individuals who participated in the initial protests after the young man’s death, tracking them across state lines and telling local police that the protesters were being recruited by ISIS.
“These documents suggest that since at least 2016, the FBI was engaged in a national intelligence collection effort to manufacture a so-called ‘Black Identity Extremist’ threat. They are spending a lot of energy on this and they are clearly reaching out to other law enforcement,” Nusrat Choudhury, ACLU Racial Justice Program deputy director, told The Intercept.
The concern about local police cooperating with “Joint Terrorism Task Forces” headed by the FBI is that the normal rules protecting civil liberties may not apply, thus unlocking the door for potential abuses.
“This is happening at the same time when jurisdictions across the country, our police departments, are actively acquiring surveillance tools in really secretive ways, without any sort of oversight and regulation,” observed Myaisha Hayes, campaign strategies director for MediaJustice. “And it makes me worry that those tools can be used against activists given the sort of environment that the FBI is creating around criminalizing dissent.”
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