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Relaxed rules for FBI's domestic spying operations in 2011 handbook

By Kosta Harlan |
June 14, 2011
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The FBI is relaxing its rules and removing restrictions on domestic spying for its 14,000 agents, the New York Times reported June 13. While FBI spokesperson Valerie Caproni claims the changes are "more like fine-tuning than major changes," civil liberties advocates and activists are speaking out against the new rules.

"The FBI's new rules simply turn their current violations and wrongdoing into standard procedure," said Tom Burke, a spokesperson for the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, an organization that formed after over 80 FBI agents raided the homes of prominent anti-war, trade union and international solidarity activists in the Midwest in September 2010. "FBI agents and informers can now infiltrate and spy on political groups at will. Federal agents are unleashed to coax and provoke citizens to commit crimes, to set them up and entrap them. The U.S. government is step by step becoming more repressive and taking away the rights to free speech and association. It is all part of the decline of the U.S. empire."

While the new FBI guidelines, known as the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, have not yet been published, the New York Times reported some of the changes to the rules, including:

  • FBI agents already have the legal powers to investigate people or organizations "proactively," without any evidence that they are connected to criminal or terrorist activity - this lowest category of investigation is an "assessment." With the new rules, FBI agents can search commercial and law enforcement databases for information on people and organizations without even opening an assessment.
  • To help pressure people into assisting the government in investigations of others, FBI agents will be able to administer lie-detector tests and search people's trash without opening a "preliminary investigation," which is a category of investigation that requires some evidence or basis for suspecting criminal activity.
  • Currently surveillance teams can only be used once during an "assessment." Under the new rules, FBI agents will be able to conduct surveillance repeatedly without having any factual basis for suspecting someone of wrongdoing.
  • The FBI maintains a set of secretive rules regarding participation of FBI agents or informants in an organization. Under the new rules, FBI agents or informants will be able to participate up to five meetings of a group without having to abide by any of the special rules regarding participation.

"Instead of tightening the guidelines and closing the loopholes enabling abuse, FBI agents are due to receive new unwarranted surveillance powers," Azadeh Shahshahani, the executive vice president of the National Lawyers Guild, told Fight Back!. "This is a worrisome development in light of the documented history of FBI abuse of power, including spying on activists engaged in legitimate First Amendment activity as well as frequent misuse of 'national security letters' as shown by the Inspector General’s findings."

The relaxed rules for the FBI are likely to increase the surveillance and spying on constitutionally protected First Amendment activities. According to the Washington Post's 2010 "Top Secret America" investigative series:

The F.B.I. has opened thousands of such low-level investigations each month, and a vast majority has not generated information that justified opening more intensive investigations.

As of December, there were 161,948 suspicious activity files in the classified Guardian database, mostly leads from FBI headquarters and state field offices. Two years ago, the bureau set up an unclassified section of the database so state and local agencies could send in suspicious incident reports and review those submitted by their counterparts in other states. Some 890 state and local agencies have sent in 7197 reports so far.

The relaxed rules for the FBI come as the Senate is considering extending current FBI director Robert Mueller's term by another two years.

In a press release issued June 13 by the Institute for Public Accuracy, Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, said "Over Director Mueller’s ten-year tenure, the FBI has repeatedly violated the rights of peaceful Americans, abused its powers, lied to Congress, and overlooked opportunities to better protect national security - yet the White House and Congress seem poised to support these failures by extending the director’s term. The executive branch is off the rails, and the legislature asleep at the switch."

The Committee to Stop FBI Repression has also been organizing call-ins to Senators, urging them to vote against extending Mueller's term.