Privacy SOS

Thanks to a further relaxation of the FBI’s Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, the FBI’s 14,000 agents now have “more leeway to search databases, go through household trash or use surveillance teams to scrutinize the lives of people who have attracted their attention” (Charlie Savage, “FBI Agents Get Leeway to Push Privacy Bounds,” New York Times, June 12, 2011).

Agents could already open “proactive” low-level “assessments” of people and organizations without evidence of criminal or terrorist activity. Under the new rules they don’t have to make a record when they search database or administer lie-detector tests or search trash in an effort to get information that could be used “to put pressure on that person to assist the government in the investigation of others.” The new rules also permit agents even greater scope to use surveillance and infiltrate groups when conducting “assessments.”
Under the headline “Backward at the FBI,” The New York Times editorialized on June 19, 2011: 
The Obama administration has long been bumbling along in the footsteps of its predecessor when it comes to sacrificing Americans’ basic rights and liberties under the false flag of fighting terrorism. Now the Obama team seems ready to lurch even farther down that dismal road than George W. Bush did…The FBI’s recent history includes the abuse of national security letters to gather information about law-abiding citizens without court orders, and inappropriate investigations of antiwar and environmental activists. This is hardly a foundation for further loosening the rules for conducting investigations or watering down internal record-keeping and oversight.
Less than two months before the new rules were made public, The New York Times obtained data revealing that between December 2008 and March 2009, the FBI had initiated 11,667 proactive “assessments” of people and groups involving database searches, interviews, infiltration, following and photographing targets and the use of informants. Only 427 more intensive “preliminary” or “full” investigations were opened as a result of the assessments conducted in this four month period (New York Times, March 26, 2011). 

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