Privacy SOS

FBI Profiling

On November 9, 2001, the Department of Justice announced that it was circulating a list to the newly-created anti-terrorism task forces of 5,000 foreign men from specific but unnamed countries to be located and interviewed. Five months later, it added a further 3,000 names to the list. Only 42 percent were actually located and interviewed. Of this number, fewer than 20 were arrested on immigration charges, and three on criminal charges. None had any links to terrorism.

The Justice Department called the interviews a public relations success, and said they strengthened its ties with Arab and Muslim communities. But a May 2003 report by the Government Accounting Office (later the Government Accountability Office) called the interview project a pilot data-mining study and questioned its purpose and value.


Operation Green Quest

Established by the Treasury Department in October 2001, this multi-agency effort involving Customs, the IRS, the Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the FBI, the Postal Inspections Service, and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service among other agencies was supposed to disrupt the “money trail” financing terrorism. Its investigative efforts focused on charity or relief organizations, “front organizations” for terrorist financing and types of businesses and financial transactions that threw up “red flags” and needed further scrutiny, including informal money exchanges.

Under Operation Green Quest, all the major Muslim charities have had their assets frozen and raids have been conducted on homes and businesses around the country without any kind of accountability or redress. In March 2002, an Arab American woman in Herndon, Virginia, described men breaking through her door and pointing a gun at her 19-year-old daughter as she tried to call 911 for help. She and her daughter were then handcuffed for three hours as raiders looked through the contents of her drawers and took computer, credit card, passport, and bank information. 

Raids were mounted in scores of cities across the country, with special attention given to convenience stores. Once a business, charity or other body was “flagged” as having some kind of connection to “terrorism” – no matter how tenuous – the investigation would proceed entirely in secret, giving the organizations no opportunity to clear their names.


Special Registration

Implemented in November 2002 as part of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), Special Registration targeted male visitors (including foreign students, valid visa holders, and those with visa petitions pending), aged 16 years and older from 25 Muslim and Middle Eastern countries as well as North Korea. They were required to come to immigration offices to be fingerprinted, photographed, interviewed and have their financial information copied, or to register when they enter the country and re-register after 30 days. They also had to register again each time they left the country or risk being unable to return.  They were expected to meet a series of poorly-publicized rolling deadlines or face arrest, detention, fines and deportation.

Thousands were detained when they voluntarily went to register, including people who were waiting to hear about their green card applications, and foreign students who were out of status because they were taking too few courses. Thousands who feared arrest because of irregularities in their status sought asylum in Canada.  Others were prevented from re-entering the country after a trip abroad, because they had not registered again at the airport. 

Among the 82,000 people who voluntarily complied with Special Registration procedures were more than 13,000 Muslims and Middle Eastern immigrants who were placed in deportation proceedings. They included people who had errors in their paperwork, and those whose applications for an adjustment of their status had been delayed by a huge backlog in the processing of forms.

On December 1, 2003, the Department of Homeland Security announced it was suspending those part of the program that required targeted males to re-register at local immigration offices within a week of the anniversary of their first registration. But they still were required to register when they left the country and could still be called in for special interviews at any time. Asa Hutchinson, the US Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security, reported that the Special Registration program yielded no “national security gains” and that none of the criminals now in custody were connected to terrorism.

The impact of the program has been long lasting. In 2009, 40 organizations wrote a letter to the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, asking for an audit of NSEERS to study the impact of non-compliance on individuals and families, and to assess its cost and effectiveness. A September 2009 report on NSEERS produced by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Dickinson School of Law found that “well intentioned individuals who failed to comply with NSEERS due to lack of knowledge or fear have been denied ‘adjustment of status’ (green cards), and in some cases have been placed in removal proceedings under the premise that they ‘willfully’ failed to register.”


Operation TIPS

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft promoted his citizen-spy Terrorism Information and Prevention System program (Operation TIPS) as “a nationwide program giving millions of American truckers, letters carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees, and others a formal way to report suspicious terrorist activity.” Congress refused to fund Operation TIPS late in 2002 after a public outcry accused Ashcroft of wanting to create millions of domestic spies.

It has now been reconfigured as a state program, with “Terrorism Liaison Officers” – police, firefighters, transport workers, paramedics, corporate employees and other members of the public – working in conjunction with fusion centers to file “suspicious activity reports.” Starting in California, the program to recruit and train Terrorism Liaison Officers has taken root at dozens of fusion centers around the country. 

The idea of training people to participate in “terrorism prevention” proved lucrative for entrepreneurs. The Community Anti-Terrorism Training Institute (CAT Eyes) was launched by two military officers in New Jersey.  CAT eyes has trained police and neighborhood watch groups, with a goal of enlisting one hundred million recruits. It asks people to log any “terrorist indicators” they may have spotted into the FBI web site to give the Bureau a steady flow of information about “suspicious activity” around the country.

The Los Angeles Police Department has piloted the iWATCH program which gives as examples of “suspicious activities” that should be reported:

  • People drawing or measuring important buildings.
  • Strangers asking questions about security or building security procedures.
  • Briefcase, suitcase, backpack, or package left behind.
  • Cars or trucks left in No Parking zones in front of important buildings.
  • Intruders in secure areas where they are not supposed to be.
  • Chemical smells or fumes that worry you.
  • People asking questions about sensitive information such as building blueprints, security plans, or VIP travel schedules without a right or need to know.
  • Purchasing supplies or equipment that can be used to make bombs or weapons or purchasing uniforms without having the proper credentials.

The Department of Homeland Security is encouraging programs like iWATCH to be rolled out across the country and participation in the National Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiate. 

Proponents of Operation TIPS-like programs claim they are targeting behaviors, and not profiling people because of their religion or how they look. But given the extent of anti-Muslim feeling in the country and the way Muslims and Middle Easterners have been targeted by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, certain people are bound to seem “more suspicious” than others.

© 2019 ACLU of Massachusetts.