Privacy SOS

Lack of a criminal predicate requirement at the FBI opens the door to widespread abuse

This is alarming:

On the night of December 9, 2011, Siham Stewart called her husband, Ayyub Abdul-Alim, as he closed down his corner store, Nature’s Garden, in Springfield, Massachusetts. She asked him to bring home a gallon of milk. A few minutes later, she watched from the window of their second-floor apartment as he was seized in the street and handcuffed by two police officers.

Forty-eight hours after Abdul-Alim’s arrest, FBI agent James Hisgen and Springfield police officer Ronald Sheehan offered him the chance to walk away free of charges if he agreed to become an informant on the Muslim community. He refused the deal and is now held at the Cedar Junction maximum-security prison in Massachusetts, facing up to sixteen years behind bars.

While awaiting trial, Abdul-Alim discovered that his wife received cash payments from the FBI totaling at least $11,949. The receipts were signed by Sheehan and Hisgen. Stewart testified against Abdul-Alim in court and admitted to working as an informant. This past April, Abdul-Alim was found guilty of illegal possession of a firearm that he alleges the officers planted on him as part of their attempt to pressure him to work for the FBI.

In related news, the ACLU is reiterating a request to meet with the FBI director, the Attorney General, and the President about discriminatory practices targeting Muslims. In a letter to FBI director James Comey, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office Laura Murphy writes:

Under the guise of community outreach, the FBI has targeted mosques and Muslim community organizations for intelligence gathering. It has pressured law-abiding American Muslims to become informants against their own communities, often in coercive circumstances. It has sent undercover FBI employees and informants to infiltrate mosques and community centers in what appear to be virtual fishing expeditions. It has also stigmatized innocent Muslims by placing them on the No Fly List and other watch lists. In short, the government’s domestic counterterrorism policies treat entire minority communities as suspect, and American Muslims have borne the brunt of government suspicion, stigma and abuse.

We are particularly concerned that restrictions on the FBI that were originally designed to remedy abuses and protect civil liberties during investigations have been significantly loosened, resulting in rights violations.

We have also repeatedly raised concerns about the negative impact that prior changes to the Attorney General’s Guidelines on Domestic FBI Operations and the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide have had on civil liberties protections.

Clearly, incidents like that described in the story excerpted above are part of a much larger trend. That trend has roots in bad policy decisions made in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Unfortunately, as the ACLU alludes to above, the DOJ's internal regulations allow FBI agents to investigate people they don't suspect of criminal activity. That lack of a criminal predicate requirement opens the door to widespread, institutionalized abuses.

Let's hope Attorney General Holder agrees to meet with civil liberties experts—and brings his FBI director along—before he leaves office. The nation's most powerful law enforcement officers need to hear the ACLU out. After all, discriminatory law enforcement practices aren't just bad for democracy. They are bad for public safety, too.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.