Manufacturing a “Black Separatist” Threat and Other Dubious Claims: Bias in Newly Released FBI Terrorism Training Materials
In a throwback to the J. Edgar Hoover-era COINTELPRO investigations targeting civil rights and anti-war activists, the FBI is now training its agents to be on the lookout for "Black Separatist" terrorists, according to FBI training materials released today by the ACLU. These new disclosures, obtained through Freedom of Information Act litigation, are the latest in a growing flood of FBI training materials that include factually flawed and biased information.
The FBI's apparent concern over a so-called "Black Separatist Threat" first came to light last year, when the ACLU released a 2009 FBI Atlanta Intelligence Note that purported to examine this "threat," in part by charting the growth of the black population in Georgia from 2000 through 2015.
It is hard to see how the relative size of the black population has any bearing on the number of alleged "Black Separatists" in a given area, much less the threat they pose, and this question is not answered in the document. We previously raised concerns that the memo, while heavily redacted, focuses undue attention on the First Amendment-protected activities of the groups it identifies as "Black Separatists," including appearances at political campaign events and protests against police violence, rather than any alleged acts of terrorism.
But the Atlanta Intelligence Note raised a more fundamental question: who are "Black Separatists" and is there any evidence they pose a terrorist threat? Internet searches of "Black Separatist terrorism," "Black Separatist bombing," and "Black Separatist shooting" fail to bring up any recent incidents that could be fairly described as terrorist violence. No "Black Separatist" terrorist incidents are included in the FBI's list of "Major Terrorism Cases: Past and Present," nor on the more comprehensive list of terrorist attacks going back to 1980, which are detailed in an FBI report entitled "Terrorism 2002-2005." While Black nationalist groups like the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army were certainly involved in political violence back in the 1970s, they no longer exist, and the last acts of violence attributed to either group were more than two decades ago.
So why are Atlanta FBI agents now searching for black separatist threats? Because the FBI appears to be training them to believe there is one using factually flawed materials.
Newly-released FBI domestic terrorism training presentations on "Black Separatist Extremists" juxtapose decades-old examples of violence by the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army with unorthodox and controversial beliefs expressed by a number of different modern groups to suggest, without evidence, that these latter-day groups pose a similar threat of violence. The FBI admits that the organizations it calls "Black Separatists" have no unifying theme or mission, stating "specific goals historically fluctuated between group to group," but suggests that "all share racial grievances against the U.S., most seek restitution, or governance base [sic] on religious identity or social principals [sic]." This broad description could of course cover many different groups from the fringe to the mainstream, exposing them all to heightened government surveillance. Related counterterrorism training presentations indicate the FBI has also invented a new class of domestic terrorists in 2009 called "American Islamic Extremists," which it describes as American Muslims who mix "Islamic theology with some levels of black separatism, anarchism, and racial rhetoric."
These FBI training materials, obtained through Freedom of Information Act litigation by the ACLU of Northern California, the Asian Law Caucus and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, raise three primary concerns. First, for the FBI to produce training programs that portray groups as violent threats based on old and misleading evidence and false associations is improper, and can only misdirect investigative resources. And because the groups highlighted have little in common save their racial identities, these flawed trainings will encourage racial profiling, rather than fact-based investigations. Second, the presentations' focus on the unconventional ideologies of these modern groups tends to suggest a direct connection between belief and violence, which will again lead to inappropriate investigations based on First Amendment-protected activities rather than evidence of criminal conduct. Finally, even where these inappropriate investigations based on race and ideology fail to find evidence of violence, under its new rules the FBI may continue to pursue these groups under what it calls a "disruption strategy."
The FBI's disruption strategy is laid out in a 2009 memorandum from the Counterterrorism Division to all field offices instituting a "baseline collection plan," which itemizes the types of information that FBI agents should seek during investigations of suspected terrorists. The plan describes implementation of a "disruption strategy" that is eerily reminiscent of the COINTELPRO-era disruption activities that were specifically designed to suppress First Amendment activity. The 2009 FBI memorandum states that when "the risk to public safety is too great, or if all significant intelligence has been collected, and/or the threat is resolved," agents may employ a disruption strategy "including arrests, interviews, or source-driven operations to effectively disrupt subject's activities" [emphasis added]. This means that groups the FBI believes, but cannot prove, are involved in terrorism (perhaps because they aren't) can still be investigated and targeted for sting operations or other invasive techniques, not to mitigate a threat, but to disrupt their activities.
By conjuring the notion of a "Black Separatist" movement from the unconnected activities of different groups with disparate views and goals, the FBI creates a false justification for aggressive enforcement operations against any group to which it gives this label, essentially using race and ideology as proxies for evidence of violence. Such disparate treatment raises grave First Amendment and equal protection concerns. Indeed, a separate presentation on "Abortion Extremism" has a slide that makes this point explicitly:
"Many tactics standing alone constitute protected activity under the First Amendment. However, when considered in the context of the abortion extremism movement, these tactics may indicate a resurgence of extremist activity."
Race and Ideology Emphasized in FBI Training and Intelligence Products
Unfortunately, the Atlanta FBI's misguided fixation on race and ideology is not unique. A 2008 FBI Newark Intelligence Note purporting to describe the threat from the street gang MS-13 produced a county-by-county analysis of the Latino population in New Jersey, broken down by national origin, as part of the FBI's racial and ethnic mapping program.
Alabama and Georgia FBI offices also tracked Latino communities, even though the Alabama FBI made clear that MS-13 is not an exclusively Latino gang. Similar FBI documents targeted Muslim communities in Michigan, and Chinese and Russian communities in San Francisco. The FBI's identification and mapping of these ethnic communities leaves them open to heightened scrutiny, aggressive surveillance or even "disruption" operations.
The ACLU previously released flawed FBI training materials that presented false and biased views of Arabs and Muslims, but the documents we're releasing today show that factual flaws and bias are broader problems in FBI training. In addition to the training presentations on so-called "Black Separatists," the FBI has produced a broad range of misleading and prejudicial materials based on race, ethnicity and ideology:
There's no place for factually incorrect law enforcement training or intelligence reports, and instruction that focuses on race and ideology will undoubtedly drive biased and inappropriate FBI investigations. To its credit, after a public outcry the FBI initiated a review of its racist training materials on Islam and Arab culture, and reportedly removed over 800 problematic documents from its programs (including the slide about shaking hands with Asians). But it has so far refused to review FBI intelligence reports, which often include similarly erroneous information and may reach an even broader law enforcement audience.
The release of these new FBI training materials makes clear that the FBI must conduct a more comprehensive review of both counterterrorism training and intelligence materials to remove factually flawed and biased information, which in turn results in biased, improper, and ineffective FBI investigations and intelligence activities.