Documents Reveal that FBI Openly Targets the Innocent

Charlie Savage at the New York Times has a piece up from yesterday citing declassified documents revealing that the Federal Bureau of Investigation often keeps suspects on their terrorist watch list even if they have been found not guilty in a court of law.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is permitted to include people on the government’s terrorist watch list even if they have been acquitted of terrorism-related offenses or the charges are dropped, according to newly released documents.

…The database now has about 420,000 names, including about 8,000 Americans, according to the statistics released in connection with the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. About 16,000 people, including about 500 Americans, are barred from flying.

…The 91 pages of newly disclosed files include a December 2010 guidance memorandum to F.B.I. field offices showing that even a not-guilty verdict may not always be enough to get someone off the list, if agents maintain they still have “reasonable suspicion” that the person might have ties to terrorism.

Normally, it is explained, a not guilty verdict will result in getting off the terrorist watch list, but that in “exceptions” the FBI keeps a separate special file for people who, regardless of what the courts say, stay on the list anyways. These people, the FBI decides, “pose a national security risk even though they are not the subject of any active investigation.”

Reading this piece from AlterNet, the picture seems even starker. It explains the national security surveillance state,

pumps out some 50,000 intelligence reports every day into the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database (which contains over a million names, including aliases). This error-ridden “master list” is not to be confused with the National Counterterrorism Center’s Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE)system, which held 640,000 identities in March 2011. There arereported to be about a dozen terrorism watch lists or databases, and a single tip from a credible source is all it takes to get into one or more of them, while there is no reliable way to get out.

How can this be? If individuals pose a national security risk, there should be sufficient evidence to prosecute them for it, no? This is pretty perplexing, until we use the longstanding definition that the government has used for “national security risk” (n. 1. one who is disliked and who may hold dissenting views. 2. one who is a threat to power.). That was certainly the definition used to claim that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are a national security risk. Not a single case has been pointed to in which any individual either in government or outside of it has been put in danger as a result of their leaked material. Instead, they fall under “national security risk because Julian Assange and WikiLeaks provided a conduit through which the truth was able to get out. The truth is a check on government power and abuse, thus it’s a threat.

The presumption of innocence is not only an antiquated principle merely serving as a nuisance to federal government henchmen, but it is so prevalent and matter-of-fact that they feel fine about releasing the details of this practice through a FOIA request. Plainly, the government doesn’t care if you’re innocent. They have other reasons for monitoring you or keeping you on watch lists.

Frequent readers will be well aware that Antiwar.com has been subject to such unjustified scrutinyat least in a preliminary way (we’re still digging into it). The FBI mentioned us in a threat assessment memo which was issued to FBI counter-terrorism offices throughout the country for the high crime of holding dissenting views, and more specifically in one case, publishing a publicly available government document. Coincidentally, a terrorist watch list.

I’ve written previously about government surveillance and even infiltration of peaceful, nonviolent activists. In the midst of all this, the FBI is pressing to loosen what little constraints are left on them in terms of surveillance.

Which brings us back to that AlterNet piece:

In his 2010 report, “A Review of the FBI’s Investigation of Certain Domestic Advocacy Groups,” Glenn Fine, the (now retired – and not replaced) inspector general of the Justice Department, concludes that the FBI had “little or no basis” for investigating many advocacy groups and individuals, and that it made false and misleading statements to the public and Congress to justify its surveillance of an antiwar rally organized by a peace and social justice organization, the Thomas Merton Center of Pennsylvania. Not only did it routinely classify actions involving nonviolent civil disobedience as “Acts of Terrorism matters,” it also, “relied upon potential crimes that may not commonly be considered ‘terrorism’ (such as trespassing or vandalism)” to get people placed on watch lists and their travels and interactions tracked.

Last year, the FBI “raided the homes and seized computers, cell phones and files belonging to peace and justice activists in Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan. Twenty-three of them have been issued with grand jury subpoenas, some for allegedly giving ‘material support‘ to a foreign terrorist organization by meeting with groups in Colombia and Palestine.” In the secret memos the FBI wrote up on Antiwar.com, they were suspicious that we might be funded by foreign entities. Turn the dial just slightly and it’s not so hard to see us being victim to what those activists in Illinois, Minnesota, and Michigan endured. If you throw out the real definition of “national security risk” and use the government’s Orwellian definition, virtually anybody can be victimized in this way. Even if you’re found not guilty.

As former FBI agent and Antiwar.com contributor Coleen Rowley has said “We’re conflating proper dissent and terrorism.”