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FBI Celebrates 100 Years of "Absolutely Not" Spying on Americans

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July 28, 2008

As we know, the FBI is celebrating its 100th year this year. In honor of the anniversary, the agency recently released “Top Ten Myths in FBI History.” Threat Level found “Myth #10) The FBI has Nikola Tesla’s plans for a ‘death ray'” the most entertaining of the 10. But our favorite has to be #4: “The Bureau routinely spies on the American people.” The FBI claims:

Absolutely not…It’s always been a delicate balance between harnessing the tools at our disposal to solve crimes and prevent attacks and upholding the civil liberties of all Americans. Over the course of a century, we’ve made some mistakes, but they’ve been few and far between compared to the vast amount of work we do every day… After all, we live and work in our communities and cherish our country’s rights and freedoms like everyone else!

Huh? It’s been widely reported and proven that the FBI has been routinely spying on Americans since the 1970’s. It started with J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous COINTELPRO, a program established to spy on suspected Communists, anti-war groups, and other rabble-rousers like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt, and ramped up after 9/11, through its Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), a collaboration between the FBI and local law enforcement around the country. In fact, in May 2002, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft rewrote the guidelines for the FBI’s national security investigations to enable spying on Americans. The new guidelines read:

For the purpose of detecting or preventing terrorist activities, the FBI is authorized to visit any place and attend any event that is open to the public, on the same terms and conditions as members of the public generally.

Sounds like a green-light to spy on Americans to us.

Are we being too hard on the FBI? Perhaps the FBI’s myth-debunker missed the Department of Justice Inspector General’s report (PDF) released in March of this year that found that the FBI has been abusing National Security Letters (NSL) — those nasty, warrantless demands for information that have been found unconstitutional by the courts — to the tune of almost 200,000 NSLs issued between 2003 and 2006.

And while they can’t held directly responsible, the FBI is the Big Brother of another agency committed to keeping tabs on Americans’ private affairs, whether it’s legal or not: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which also celebrates a big birthday this year.

“We’ve made some mistakes?” A bit of an understatement. Maybe they should think about working better, not harder.