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Big Brother, Come Clean: The FBI is Misusing "Community Outreach" Programs for Intelligence Gathering

Nusrat Choudhury,
Legal Director, ACLU of Illinois
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December 1, 2011

The FBI, in true Big Brother fashion, is secretly and deliberately collecting information about innocent Americans for its intelligence files, and illegally recording information about their speech, beliefs, and First Amendment-protected activities. This is bad enough. But to make it worse, the FBI is doing this intelligence collection through community outreach programs — programs that are supposed to build trust and rapport with the public — without telling community groups or their members what it is doing.

The proof is in the FBI’s own documents. Today, the ACLU issued our latest Eye on the FBI Alert as part of our Mapping the FBI campaign. The alert highlights FBI documents from San Francisco and Sacramento showing that the FBI is systematically storing in intelligence files memos containing the names, identifying information, and opinions of people who attend FBI outreach programs; the expressive activities of community groups; the names and positions of group leaders; and the racial, ethnic, and national origin of group members. A few examples:

  • After a 2008 meeting with a Pakistani community group, an FBI agent recorded the group leaders’ names and identified them with the First Amendment-protected activities of the group — and sent this information to an intelligence file.
  • After attending a Ramadan Iftar dinner in 2008, an FBI agent collected and documented individuals’ contact information and their First Amendment-protected opinions and associations, and “disseminated” this information “outside the FBI,” presumably to other law enforcement or intelligence agencies.

Big Brother has been very busy. But, he has also been very foolish. By using community outreach programs to gather intelligence, the FBI is jeopardizing the trust and rapport with community groups and the public that is essential to effective law enforcement in a democratic society.

The FBI records described above and others also violate the Privacy Act, which prohibits the government from compiling records about individuals’ First Amendment-protected activities in federal databases, absent special circumstances that don’t exist here.

These protections exist for good reason. The Privacy Act was passed in1974 in response to revelations that the FBI was engaged in pervasive and abusive data collection about people involved in peaceful civil rights and anti-war groups simply because of what they thought and believed, or the people with whom they associated. The FBI records we’ve identified open the door to this happening again. And Congress also expressly passed the Privacy Act to prevent government records about people that are obtained for one purpose from being used or made available for another without their consent. Yet, this is exactly what the FBI is doing now.

It’s time for Big Brother to come clean. We are calling on the FBI to stop using community outreach to gather intelligence and to be honest with community organizations about the information it gathers during outreach meetings. It should also purge all illegally collected information. And the Department of Justice Inspector General should investigate Privacy Act violations within the FBI’s San Francisco and Sacramento Divisions, and initiate a broader audit of FBI practices nationwide.

You can join our call by asking the FBI to stop wasting precious resources by investigating innocent Americans.

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