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FBI's Civil Liberties History: Palmer Raids to Racial Profiling Guidelines

Michael German,
Senior Policy Counsel, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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July 25, 2008

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

Since its inception 100 years ago this week, FBI has been assigned with an increasingly difficult task: protecting the public welfare in a free and democratic society.

Throughout its history, the FBI has achieved moments of glory and succumbed to periods of shame. At its best it has achieved some praiseworthy accomplishments — the enforcement of civil rights, significant disruption of organized crime, and the arrest of violent criminals. But at its worst, it has resembled a force of “political police” targeting those who seek change, whether in the Palmer Raids, the Red Scares, or in the widespread abuses of COINTELPRO and surveillance of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and other nonviolent activists.

These were dark periods in the FBI’s history, when it violated the civil liberties it is tasked to protect and placed our democracy and freedom in jeopardy.

Unfortunately, since 9/11, it appears that the lessons of these abuses have been forgotten. Operating under a cloak of secrecy that is par for the course for the current administration, the FBI has slid once again toward lawlessness and overzealous surveillance to the detriment of our security and our liberty — the FBI’s abuse of National Security Letters, renewed spying on political activists and the draft changes to the attorney general guidelines that embrace racial profiling are just a few examples.

Law enforcement cannot effectively operate unless it has the support and trust of the public it protects. And the public cannot embrace an agency that operates in shadows, acting with impunity and viewing every member of society as a suspect. The FBI needs to clarify its mission, to turn away from strategies that involve viewing every member of society as a suspect, and overseeing the construction of a de facto domestic intelligence agency.

Over the next 100 years, we hope that the FBI learns from the mistakes of the past and present. History will show that as a society we can be both safe and free. Hopefully, the FBI will learn this lesson soon.

Mike German is Policy Counsel for National Security, Immigration and Privacy at the ACLU, and a former FBI Special Agent.

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