by Yael Chanoff and Natalie Orenstein, San Francisco Bay Guardian, June 26, 2012
The FBI’s modern snoop program is racist, xenophobic, misdirected, dangerous — and really, really stupid
Muslims, the Internet — what isn’t the government spying on?
So, you’re a law enforcement officer in training for participation on a local Joint Terrorism Task Force. Or a student at the United States Military Academy at West Point, involved in the counterterrorism training program developed in partnership with the FBI. Or you’re an FBI agent training up to deal with terrorist threats.
Get ready for FBI training in dealing with Arab and Muslim populations.
Take note that “Western cultural values” include “rational, straight line thinking” and a tendency to “identify problems and solve them through logical decision-making process” — while “Arab cultural values” are “emotional based” and “facts are colored by emotion and subjectivity.”
Be advised that Arabs have “no concept of privacy” and “no concept of ‘constructive criticism'” and that in Arab culture it is “acceptable to interrupt conversations to convey information or make requests.”
“Westerners think, act, then feel,” an FBI powerpoint briefing notes, while “Arabs feel, act, then think.”
Those are some of the most dramatic examples of racial profiling and outright racist stereotyping revealed in thousands of pages of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Bay Guardian, the ACLU of Northern California and the Asian Law Caucus.
The documents show a pattern of cultural insensitivity, sometimes bordering on the ridiculous, not only tolerated by promoted as official instructions by the FBI. The records also show a broad pattern of surveillance of people who have engaged in no criminal activity and aren’t even suspected of crimes, but have been targeted because of their race or religion.
Pieces of this story have come out over the past year as the ACLU has charged the FBI with racial profiling and Attorney General Eric Holder has insisted it’s not happening. And some of the documents — which are not always properly dated — may be a few years old.
But none of it is ancient history: All of the material has been used by the FBI in the past few years, under the Obama administration.
This is the first complete report with the full details on a pattern of behavior that is, at the very least, disturbing — and in some parts, reminiscent of the notorious (and widely discredited) COINTELPRO program that sought to undermine and disrupt political groups in the 1960s.
The information suggests that the federal government is using methods that are not only imprecise and xenophobic but utterly ineffective in protecting the American public.
“This is the worst way to pursue security,” Hatem Bazian, professor of Near East Studies at UC Berkeley, told us.
Dozens of documents attempt to describe “Arabs and Muslims” but other groups aren’t left out of the sweeping stereotyping and blatant racism and xenophobia that the FBI has used in its training guides. One training presentation is titled “The Chinese.” The materials give such tips as “informality is perceived as disrespectful.” The presentation warns “expect your gift (money) to be refused” but advises to give “a simple gift with significant meaning- tangerines or oranges (with stems/leaves.)” But “never give a clock as a gift! (death!)”
And if those in the training on “The Chinese” find themselves in “interactions with the opposite sex,” then “touching, too many compliments, may imply a romantic liaison is desired — be careful!”
The vast majority of the “cultural awareness” training materials imply that the authors believe that the law enforcement personnel receiving the training will never be female or interact with female members of the groups they describe. Some warn repeatedly to never ask Arabs how “females in their family” are doing in polite conversation.
A presentation on “Arab and Muslim culture” compares the western thought process with that of all Arabs. According to the FBI, westerners are “rational” thinkers; Arabs, on the other hand, are “emotion based.” A slideshow on cross-cultural interrogation techniques says, “It is characteristic of the Arabic mind to be swayed more by words than ideas and more by ideas than facts.”
Bazian said the FBI’s generalizations about the Arab intellect are “ideological constructs reflective of the orientalist discourse.”
“Many of these individuals have not done any primary sociological, psychological, or historical work in the Arab/Muslim world,” said Bazian, who works on UC Berkeley’s Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project. “What they basically do is take a text from a particular historical period and pick these points and put it as reflective of contemporary Muslim society. Most of these statements have no basis in any critical analysis. They’re not rooted in any type of research.”
Included in the FBI’s recommended reading list for counterterrorism agents-in-training is the “Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam,” in which “Islam expert Robert Spencer reveals Islam’s ongoing, unshakeable quest for global conquest and why the West today faces the same threat as the Crusaders did.”
It’s not exactly an academically sound piece of work, Bazian told us. Spencer and his cohorts are “political hacks,” the professor said. “They come from neo-con backgrounds. Even saying ‘extreme right wing’ is giving them credit; they’re way down below the cliff. They create this contrast between western society and the rest of the world based on a nostalgic idea of western society.”
Arab culture is often the target these days, but the rhetoric recalls that used during the Chinese Exclusionary Act era, and toward Latinos in the United States today, Bazian said.
“They pick on the weakest, most vulnerable people in western society at a particular time and lay blame on them,” he said.
The FBI’s xenophobic approach to interrogation training—which involves warning new agents that “If an Arab is scared, he will often lie to try to avoid trouble”—is not even productive, Bazian said.
“If you go to people with professional training in interrogation and investigation, they’ll say none of this gives them access to security. If anything, it creates a greater global misunderstanding.”
And the creation of misunderstanding doesn’t stop there. The FBI is also involved in an intelligence-gathering method known as racial mapping. Racial mapping involves local FBI offices tracking groups in their “domains” based on race and ethnicity.
In blog post, the ACLU writes, “Empirical data show that terrorists and criminals do not fit neat racial, ethnic, nation-origin or religious stereotypes, and using such flawed profiles is a recipe for failure.” In the Counterterrorism Textbook read by all trainees the FBI seems to agree, warning multiple times that there is no such thing as a typical terrorist and that making assumptions based on stereotypes is dangerous and unproductive.
Yet the FBI files we’ve acquired reveal that the bureau consistently does just that. Though the Department of Justice prohibited race from being “used to any degree” in law enforcement investigations in 2003, a convenient and potentially unconstitutional exception allows racial profiling in national security matters.
When the FBI created its Domestic Investigation and Operations Guide in 2008, it used that loophole to permit the mapping of racial and ethnic demographic information and to keep tabs on “behavioral characteristics reasonably associated with a particular criminal or terrorist element of an ethnic community,” the ACLU reported.
Communities in San Francisco have been the victims of this prejudicial loophole more than once. In 2009, the ACLU reported that the FBI justified mapping and investigating the Chinese American population in the city because “within this community there has been organized crime for generations.” Likewise, the bureau collected demographic data on the Russian population because of the “Russian criminal enterprises” known to exist in San Francisco.
The loophole, however, may not even apply to these investigations in the first place.
According to Michael German, a 16-year veteran of the FBI and senior analyst with the ACLU, these investigations don’t fit the national security description. “In intelligence notes on Chinese and Russian organized crime, those are not national security issues,” German told us. “Those are all clearly criminal investigations.”
German has brought attention to another troubling use of racial mapping — documents revealing that the FBI’s Atlanta bureau tracks Georgia’s African American population.
The stated reason is a threat of black separatist groups; the documents name the New Black Panther Party and the Black Hebrew Israelites as the black separatist groups that pose a threat.
German wrote about this problematic practice in a May 29 article on the website Firedoglake.
“The problem with these documents,” German told us, “is that it’s not black separatists or alleged black separatists who are being tracked — it’s the entire black community in Georgia.”
“Those individuals and those communities are being targeted only for their race,” German said. “Were it not for their race they wouldn’t be part of that assessment. There is no reason to do that, accept to treat that community differently than the way it treats other communities. It’s problematic from a constitutional standpoint.”
The New Black Panther Party was founded in Dallas and has mostly East Coast chapters. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate United States hate groups, “The group portrays itself as a militant, modern-day expression of the black power movement (it frequently engages in armed protests of alleged police brutality and the like), but principals of the original Black Panther Party of the 1960s and 1970s— a militant, but non-racist, left-wing organization — have rejected the new Panthers as a ‘black racist hate group’ and contested their hijacking of the Panther name and symbol.” The Black Hebrew Israelites is another fringe group, an apocalyptic group whose ideology holds that black Americans are God’s chosen people.
Both groups have written and spoken record of racist and violent rhetoric, but record of violent or criminal acts are hard to find.
“I’d say they’re a fairly small part of the radical right, and generally quite small. As far as we know, there is virtually no connection between these groups and criminal activity,” Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the SPLC, told the Guardian.
According to Potok, the center’s list of hate groups in operation in 2011 includes four organizations classified as black separatist, which, between them, have 140 chapters. Those chapters are counted as 140 of the list’s 1,018 groups.
“Most of the rest of the list are white supremacist groups,” Potok notes. “There are some exceptions — anti-gay groups and anti-Muslim groups.” After a quick count, Potok found 688 groups to be “straight-up white supremacist.”
The majority of these hate groups may be white supremacist — but the FBI is not involved in tracking white populations.
Last October, the FBI’s press office responded to the ACLU’s concerns with racial mapping. “These efforts are intended to address specific threats, not particular communities,” the agency’s statement reads.
“These domain management efforts seek to use existing, available government data to locate and better understand the communities that are potential victims of the threats. There must be an understanding of the communities we protect in order to focus our limited human and financial resources in the areas where those resources are most needed.”
With that defense, resources continue to pour into racial mapping efforts.
Black separatist organizations are not the only groups to be targeted for political beliefs. Groups such as “anarchist extremists” and “animal rights/environmental extremists” are also, according to the FBI, groups to watch out for.
A training presentation for the Bay Area’s Joint Terrorism Task Force includes a list of those groups: “animal rights/eco terrorism, anarchists, white separatists, black separatists, militia/sovereign citizens, and ‘lone offender’.”
How do you spot a potential “animal rights extremist”? According to the documents, “ideology and concepts” found among this group includes a “complete vegan lifestyle,” and activities include the promotion of “anti-capitalist literature.” In other words, your roommate is probably a terrorist.
SPYING ON MUSLIMS
Racial mapping is not the only FBI practice that targets people just for being members of groups “associated with crimes.” The FBI routinely gathers information on Muslims through deceptive “community outreach” programs.
Memoranda we’ve obtained reveal that FBI agents, operating under the guise of community outreach, attended various events hosted by local Muslim organizations in order to gather intelligence between 2007 and 2009.
When agents attended Ramadan Iftar dinners in San Francisco, they wrote down participants’ contact information and documented their conversations and opinions. At an alleged outreach event at CSU Chico, they recorded a conversation with a student about the Saudi Student Association’s activities and even took the student’s picture. That information was sent to the FBI in Washington, DC, the ACLU reported.
Writing down information on individuals’ First Amendment activities—in this case without any evidence that they were notified or asked—violates the federal Privacy Act, the ACLU says. Using access to community events to gather personal information undermines the FBI’s stated effort to form relationships with Muslim leaders and community members.
And covert surveillance can also have an immediate and hazardous impact on the unwitting subjects.
“It’s becoming more of a public discourse that these FBI background checks are affecting immigration status, the ability to send money back home, and generally creating an environment of fear,” said Miriam Zouvounis, membership coordinator with San Francisco’s Arab Resource and Organizing Center.
The organization has helped clients who have been detained for months because their names were mistakenly placed on a no-fly list, and others whose immigration processes have taken up to ten years because they were erroneously perceived as threatening, Zouvounis said.
“The process of information collecting on covert and overt levels is accelerating, and definitely a present reality in San Francisco. People don’t want to be civically engaged if that material’s being used against them,” she said.
“Extremism online is the most serious international terrorist threat in the world.” Or so says FBI training materials in a presentation entitled “Extremism online,” meant for those training to be online covert employees. The documents teach OCEs to scan through comment threads and enter chat rooms, searching for people whose speech may be “operational.”
This surveillance has led to investigations.
Some of the documents are individual files and summaries of individual files, and many note that the person (often someone who was convicted, so the name isn’t redacted in the documents) was “detected via the Internet.” Some examples: “Mohamad Osman Mohamud, detected via the Internet, discussing Jihad plans” and “Hosam Smadi, detected via the Internet: online chats.” Both men were 19 when they were convicted of crimes.
These men — and the many more who have not been accused of any criminal activity but are likely under surveillance or investigation by OCEs — could have been “detected via the Internet” in a variety of ways, according to German.
“It could be that the chats were open source, or that an informant was in the chat room, or a person participating simply turned them over to the FBI, none of which would require any legal process,” German explained.
“It could also be monitored under FISA [ the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] or traditional criminal wiretaps, which would require court warrants (secret ones under FISA). Finally, the stored chat logs retained on third party servers could have been obtained with Patriot Act Section 215 orders, or what’s called a “D” order under the Stored Communications Act (if held for over 180 days),” German detailed in an email.
So what kind of speech are OCEs looking out for to peg potential terrorist threats? The Extremism Online presentation has a list of “major themes and language used in online extremist writings,” which includes Islam-related terms such as “Caliphate, Al-Ansar, Al-Rafidah, Mushrik, and Munafiq” as well as the Arabic words “Akhi, Uhkti, Ameen, Du’aa, Shari’ah, and Iman” (brother, sister, amen, prayer, Islamic law, and faith.) Other words the agents are told to look out for: “crusaders, hypocrites, dogs and pigs,” and any discussion of “occupation of Muslim lands.”
The FBI can really get into your business if agents confiscate your possessions. Personal computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices, according to the documents, are routinely checked out at Regional Computer Forensics Labs.
The nearest one to San Francisco is in Menlo Park, where employees brag of having investigated thousands of pieces of data.
Law enforcement routinely confiscates property after arrests, and if local cops are involved with the FBI through the Joint Terrorism Task Forces or other partnerships, they may very well send the belongings of those arrested to be checked out at a local RCFL. But there are other ways the FBI can obtain your electronics.
“Certainly the FBI has the authority to obtain computers and other devices with search warrants, either traditional search warrants where the individual is given notice or expedited warrants where the person isn’t aware,” German told the Guardian, noting that the second type of warrant is the preferred method, for obvious reasons, when the Feds plan to search a confiscated computer.
“The FBI also works with immigrations and customs enforcement, so laptops and other devices seized at the border the FBI can gain access to. There are myriad ways they can get them.”
A 2009 FBI memorandum on investigating suspected terrorists reveals that the Bureau encourages its agents to implement a “disruption strategy” that German wrote is “eerily reminiscent” of the COINTELPRO tactics used to stop political organizers in the1960s. “If the risk to public safety is too great, or if all significant intelligence has been collected, and/or the threat is otherwise resolved, investigators may, with substantive desk coordination and concurrence, implement a disruption strategy,” one memo reads. Investigators can conduct interviews, make arrests, or use any number of other undefined “tools” to “effectively disrupt subject’s [sic] activities.” Such disruption strategies have been used in the past to investigate and shut down First Amendment-protected activity, German said. The reintroduction of such tactics could open the door for a major breach of the subjects’ constitutional rights.
A MATTER OF PRIORITIES
“After September 11th, 2001, the FBI realigned its mission and purpose to reflect the global and domestic threats that face the US,” begins an orientation packet for members of Joint Terrorism Task Forces. “FBI director Robert M. Meuller III defined the following as the top ten priorities (in order of importance) that confront the Bureau today,” Number one on the list: Protect the United States from terrorist attack.
Indeed, after 9/11, the FBI prioritized terrorism investigations, a shift from the previous focus on criminal investigations. Classified as national security threats, these investigations are not subject to the same type of privacy and anti-racial discrimination protections that other criminal investigations might be.
Terrorist threats, apparently, are to be found in mosques, in online conversations that involve criticism of US foreign policy, in entire populations of African Americans or Chinese Americans in given areas. In recent years, simply speaking Arabic online or being black makes a person a suspect and potential target of surveillance.
Look out America, especially members of that celebrated “melting pot.” The feds are watching.