The week before last, The Washington Post concluded a two-year investigation of our government’s domestic spying activities, revealing a lack of accountability pervading its far-flung and vast operations. Last week, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, confirming that the FBI is violating the constitutional rights of Americans en masse – as it has done before.
Adding insult to injury, the bureau now preposterously demands even further powers beyond those dramatically extended by the Patriot Act. At a minimum, Congress should emphatically reject demands for FBI access to “electronic communication transactional records,” such as email meta-data and browsing history. However, Congress must also go further, by – as a coalition of nearly 50 peace, environmental, civil rights and civil liberties groups requested last week – shining light on the bureau’s violations of constitutional rights and considering long overdue legislative limits to constrain the FBI.
President Eisenhower warned 50 years ago that national security could undermine democracy by subverting popular policy preferences. His warning was prescient. In the 1960s, the FBI pursued a concerted campaign to undermine the civil rights movement by criminalizing groups, like the NAACP, pursuing peaceful political activities protected by the First Amendment.
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This is no conspiracy theory: Congress documented wanton FBI abuses in over 14,000 pages of testimony. According to the Church committee, the FBI’s activities then would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but Cointelpro (counterintelligence program) went far beyond that … the bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights….
Revelations of the FBI’s Cointelpro prompted a national outrage that forced the Department of Justice to enact limits in 1976 curtailing the bureau’s various abuses. Today, these problems are back.
The attorney general’s guidelines that once constrained the FBI have faced repeated erosion, culminating in revisions in 2008 – adopted over Congressional objections in the last full month of the Bush administration – that essentially invite racial and political profiling.
The 2008 Mukasey guidelines hold that race may serve as a factor justifying suspicion, and even grants individual agents discretion to use intrusive investigatory methods without any evidence suggesting that a crime has been committed. Last week, Mueller mistakenly claimed before the Senate that FBI agents must at least have a suspicion of wrongdoing before beginning surveillance – but later conceded that, in fact, FBI surveillance is not limited by even suspicion.
This bears repetition: the FBI currently conducts monitoring and surveillance operations based on neither evidence nor suspicion. Think about that for a moment.