Blog of Rights

Is the FBI’s Community Outreach Program a Trojan Horse?

By Mike German, Senior Policy Counsel, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 3:33pm

In December 2011, the ACLU released FBI documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, which showed that San Francisco FBI agents were exploiting community outreach programs for intelligence-gathering purposes. Now it appears FBI agents in Minneapolis have adopted this ruse, and may be using it in even more sinister ways.

As the nation’s predominant federal law enforcement agency, the FBI has a duty to communicate with the public—both to provide information about FBI activities and to hear grievances—so it can address specific community concerns. The FBI’s community outreach program, organized under its Office of Public Affairs, was established to fulfill this obligation, and much of its work is laudable. But the FBI documents we received show that at least since 2005, in an increasingly formal and systematic process that lasted  well into 2011, the FBI used community outreach programs to collect information about First Amendment-protected activity for intelligence and investigative purposes.

In 2008, the FBI Directorate of Intelligence formalized the intersection of community outreach and intelligence gathering by creating its own “community outreach” files under its Domain Management program (identified by an 800-series case file number), to “enhance the . . . network of contacts with community leaders . . . who can assist the FBI and fellow federal, state and local law enforcement and intelligence agencies in combating terrorism.” Under this program, intelligence agents either make their own community outreach presentations, as documented in this 2008 memo, or accompany FBI community outreach specialists to meetings to collect intelligence, as documented in this heavily-redacted 2009 memo. The San Francisco FBI also had a “mosque outreach” program that it exploited in similar ways.

In response the FBI issued a press statement quoted in the Los Angeles Times that defended the collection as “within the scope of an authorized law enforcement activity,” but also suggested that new rules would prevent repetition. “…Since that time, the FBI has formalized its community relations program to emphasize a greater distinction between outreach and operational activities.” The new rules appear to be an improvement, but only if FBI agents follow them.

A new report from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest American-Muslim civil rights organization, indicates they aren’t. On January 30, 2013, CAIR issued a press release welcoming the initiation of an internal FBI investigation into its allegation that two FBI agents threatened and harassed a Somali immigrant in Minnesota in an attempt to coerce him into becoming an informant. The happiness didn’t last long, however.

According to a new complaint filed by CAIR, days later an FBI agent arrived unannounced at the doorstep of its Minneapolis chapter director, Lori Saroya. When later contacted by a CAIR representative, the agent claimed that the purpose of the visit was community outreach.

Suspicious—based on the ACLU’s reporting on the FBI’s misuse of community outreach and the absence of reports that other homes in the community were visited—a CAIR attorney called the agent back. Here’s how CAIR described the interaction:

“When CAIR-MN's [attorney] later called [the agent] and asked if he was assigned to the division’s community outreach program, [the agent] responded that he was not and stated that he is a field law enforcement agent who wanted to speak to a member of Ms. Saroya's household for a ‘meet and greet.”

So once again, it appears FBI agents are improperly exploiting the good will established through its community outreach programs as a method of gaining access to community members for investigative purposes. Trained FBI investigators know that showing up unannounced at someone’s home is intimidating, and they could have contacted Ms. Saroya by telephone or at her office to set up an appointment if the true purpose was a simple “meet and greet” with a member of her household. Coming as it did days after CAIR’s success in triggering an investigation into Minneapolis FBI activity, Ms. Saroya requested Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate whether the visit was an “attempt to intimidate a highly-regarded community leader” after the field office received  “negative media attention” as a result of CAIR’s advocacy.  We agree that this matter deserves Justice Department scrutiny. The ACLU has previously called on the Department of Justice Inspector General to investigate the FBI’s illegal information-collection practices at community events in its San Francisco and Sacramento divisions.

For others who are approached by FBI agents claiming to be engaged in a community outreach effort, this episode provides a good example of how to respond. First, seek legal representation because any statements made to FBI agents, even community outreach agents, may be used against you.  And second, be sure your lawyer asks whether the person is assigned to the community outreach program. The agent should be able to provide documentation to verify his role, and should be willing to explain the information collection regulations that will apply to any conversation. Such formality might seem unnecessary, but unfortunately, the FBI already undermined the trust in its community outreach programs. The only way it can recover this trust is for the Justice Department and the Inspector General to conduct full investigations of these FBI practices. Most importantly, the FBI must come clean and engage with the public in a forthright and transparent manner.

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