FBI Criticized for Collecting Racial and Ethnic Data

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Arab-Americans in Michigan, African-Americans in Georgia and “broad swaths” of Latino-Americans communities across multiple states are some of the groups the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says the FBI is “unconstitutionally” racially profiling.

Based on internal FBI documents [PDF] obtained under Freedom of Information Act requests, the ACLU accuses the bureau of targeting Americans “based on false stereotypes ascribing criminal propensity to minority communities.”

The group cites a 2009 Detroit FBI field office memo [PDF] as an example.  The memo states that many of the 40 groups the State Department has designated as terrorist organizations originate in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and says that “because Michigan has a large Middle-Eastern and Muslim population, it is prime territory for attempted radicalizationand recruitment by these terrorist groups.” The ACLU asserts that the Detroit FBI sought to collect information about these communities without any evidence of wrongdoing.

“It’s counterproductive because it alienates local communities from their government, and it also sends the message that the government views prejudice as acceptable,” said Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, in a conference call.

In a letter [PDF] to U.S. Attorney Gen. Eric Holder, the ACLU argued that the documents show that the FBI is targeting Americans “based upon their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion and political activities protected under the First Amendment,” and called for the Justice Department to tighten FBI restrictions.

Current FBI guidelines prohibit the use of race or ethnicity unless describing a specific suspect, but there is a broad exemption for issues of national security and border integrity operations. The ACLU’s letter calls for the attorney general to rescind that exemption, and to add religion and national origin to barred profiling criteria.

ACLU policy counsel Michael German – a former undercover FBI agent — told The New York Times that these documents, along with recently released anti-Arab and anti-Muslim FBI training materials [PDF], showed a “theme of mass suspicion of an entire group based on racial characeristics or religion.”  As a result, he says, trained agents might be “predisposed to treating everyone from a particular group as suspect.”

The FBI says it does not investigate “solely” based on religion, race or ethnicity. “Certain terrorist and criminal groups are comprised of persons primarily from a particular ethnic or geographic community, which must be taken into account when trying to determine if there are threats to the United States,” Michael P. Kortan, an FBI spokesman, told the Times.

As a part of its “Mapping the FBI” project, the ACLU filed a lawsuit this summer challenging the FBI’s refusal to release documents about eGuardian, the bureau’s nationwide database that collects Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to help detect and prevent terrorism-related activity. As we reported earlier this year in Are We Safer?, SARs have become one of the primary weapons in the war on terror, and the files of tens of thousands of Americans have been put in national databases.

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