The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been transformed into a domestic intelligence agency and a threat to American liberty in the years since September 11, 2001. That’s the conclusion of one of the nation’s most respected legal advocacy groups, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in a scathing report called Unleashed and Unaccountable: The FBI’s Unchecked Abuse of Authority .
“Modern technological innovations have significantly increased the threat to America’s liberty by giving today’s FBI the capability to collect, store and analyze data about millions of innocent Americans,” the report charges. “The excessive secrecy with which it cloaks these domestic intelligence gathering operations has crippled constitutional oversight mechanisms.”
Essentially, the ACLU says the FBI is out of control and is increasingly violating the constitutional rights of average Americans. The organization also contends that the FBI’s surveillance powers have been mounting in recent years even though the danger from terrorism is decreasing.
FBI Becoming Less Effective because of Intelligence Work
Perhaps the most condemning charge in the report is this: “There is evidence the FBI’s increased intelligence collection powers have harmed rather than aided, its terrorism prevention efforts.” The ACLU also charges that the FBI has become negligent in its investigation of other crimes, such as murders, because of its focus on terrorism.
Some of the charges in the report include:
- The FBI is gathering far more data than it has the ability to investigate or process.
- The FBI failed to properly investigate or identify individuals who committed terrorist attacks, including the Boston Marathon bombers and Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan, even though it had identified those people as possible threats before they attacked.
- FBI agents are overworked and simply incapable of doing proper investigations.
If that wasn’t disturbing enough, the ACLU also charges that the FBI is carrying out what amounts to a systematic assault on the rights of average Americans. The group is most concerned about the bureau’s increasing use of surveillance.
The FBI’s Assault on Privacy and Individual Rights
Unleashed and Unaccountable  contains a frightening list of well-documented allegations of abuses by the FBI. Some of these abuses appear to be in direct violation of the Constitution and other laws, the ACLU says.
Some of the more significant highlights in the report:
- “Today’s FBI doesn’t just search for evidence to catch criminals, terrorists and spies. Working with other government agencies and private companies, it helps gather information about millions of law abiding Americans, tracking our communications and associations.”
- The FBI used authority granted by the Patriot Act to track all U.S. phone calls.
- The FBI engages in what the ACLU calls “racial and ethnic mapping” in which Americans are labeled threats by their race or ethnic origins. The mapping extends far beyond Arab communities. Latinos were labeled gang members, Chinese and Russian immigrants were labeled gangsters, and African-Americans were labeled “black separatists.”
- The FBI has been secretly “data mining” records from state and local law enforcement agencies and private sources to create a massive database about average Americans. The ACLU estimates that this database may contain an average of 20 records on every person in the United States. This database allegedly includes all suspicious activity reports gathered by local police agencies.
- The attorney general in 2008 gave the FBI the FBI “unfettered authority to investigate anyone they choose without any factual basis for suspecting wrongdoing.”
- The FBI actively conspires to thwart congressional oversight.
- Congress has exempted the FBI from the Whistleblower Protection Act, which means FBI employees that report abuse have no legal protection from retaliation.
- The FBI has investigated journalists in an attempt to uncover the identities of whistleblowers so politicians could retaliate against them.
- The FBI regularly uses documents called National Security Letters to get around the Fourth Amendment and conduct warrantless searches. It issued 140,000 between 2003 and 2005.
- The FBI used powers granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court to conduct warrantless wiretapping.
- The FBI has conducted possibly illegal investigations and surveillance of harmless political groups, including peace activists and other leftists critical of U.S. foreign policy. There’s no word on whether the bureau targeted conservative or right-wing groups.
- The FBI regularly violates its own rules and guidelines for surveillance and investigations.
The report’s authors conclude: “After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress and successive attorneys generals loosened many of the legal and internal controls that a previous generation had placed on the FBI to protect Americans’ constitutional rights.”
It is time, the report says, for politicians to start holding the FBI accountable once again.
“The FBI serves a crucial role in protecting Americans, but it must protect our rights as it protects our security,” the report says.