The Federal Bureau of Investigation serves a crucial role in securing the United States from
criminals, terrorists, and hostile foreign agents. Just as importantly, the FBI also protects civil
rights and civil liberties, ensures honest government, and defends the rule of law. Its agents serve
around the country and around the world with a high degree of professionalism and competence,
often under difficult and dangerous conditions. But throughout its history, the FBI has also
regularly overstepped the law, infringing on Americans’ constitutional rights while
overzealously pursuing its domestic security mission.
After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress and successive attorneys general
loosened many of the legal and internal controls that a previous generation had placed on the FBI
to protect Americans’ constitutional rights. As a result, the FBI is repeating mistakes of the past
and is again unfairly targeting immigrants, racial and religious minorities, and political dissidents
for surveillance, infiltration, investigation, and “disruption strategies.”
But modern technological innovations have significantly increased the threat to American liberty
by giving today’s FBI the capability to collect, store, and analyze data about millions of innocent
Americans. The excessive secrecy with which it cloaks these domestic intelligence gathering
operations has crippled constitutional oversight mechanisms. Courts have been reticent to
challenge government secrecy demands and, despite years of debate in Congress regarding the
proper scope of domestic surveillance, it took unauthorized leaks by a whistleblower to finally
reveal the government’s secret interpretations of these laws and the Orwellian scope of its
domestic surveillance programs.
There is evidence the FBI’s increased intelligence collection powers have harmed, rather than
aided, its terrorism prevention efforts by overwhelming agents with a flood of irrelevant data and
false alarms. Former FBI Director William Webster evaluated the FBI’s investigation of Maj.
Nadal Hasan prior to the Ft. Hood shooting and cited the “relentless” workload resulting from a
“data explosion” within the FBI as an impediment to proper intelligence analysis. And members
of Congress questioned several other incidents in which the FBI investigated but failed to
interdict individuals who later committed murderous terrorist attacks, including the Boston
Marathon bombing. While preventing every possible act of terrorism is an impossible goal, an
examination of these cases raise serious questions regarding the efficacy of FBI methods. FBI
data showing that more than half of the violent crimes, including over a third of the murders in
the U.S., go unsolved each year calls for a broader analysis of the proper distribution of law
With the appointment of Director James Comey, the FBI has seen its first change in leadership
since the 9/11 attacks, which provides an opportunity for Congress, the president, and the
attorney general to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the FBI’s policies and programs. This
report highlights areas in which the FBI has abused its authority and recommends reforms to ensure the FBI fulfills its law enforcement and security missions with proper public oversight
and respect for constitutional rights and democratic ideals.
The report describes major changes to law and policy that unleashed the FBI from its traditional
restraints and opened the door to abuse. Congress enhanced many of the FBI’s surveillance
powers after 9/11, primarily through the USA Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act Amendments. The recent revelations regarding the FBI’s use of Section 215 of
the USA Patriot Act to track all U.S. telephone calls is only the latest in a long line of abuse.
Five Justice Department Inspector General audits documented widespread FBI misuse of Patriot
Act authorities in 2007 and 2008. Congress and the American public deserve to know the full
scope of the FBI’s spying on Americans under the Patriot Act and all other surveillance
Attorney General Michael Mukasey rewrote the FBI’s rule book in 2008, giving FBI agents
unfettered authority to investigate anyone they choose without any factual basis for suspecting
wrongdoing. The 2008 Attorney General’s Guidelines created a new kind of intrusive
investigation called an “assessment,” which requires no “factual predicate” and can include
searches through government or commercial databases, overt or covert FBI interviews, and
tasking informants to gather information about anyone or to infiltrate lawful organizations. In a
two-year period from 2009 to 2011, the FBI opened over 82,000 “assessments” of individuals or
organizations, less than 3,500 of which discovered information justifying further investigation.
The 2008 guidelines also authorized the FBI’s racial and ethnic mapping program, which
allows the FBI to collect demographic information to map American communities by race and
ethnicity for intelligence purposes, based on crass racial stereotypes about the crimes each group
commits. FBI documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union show the FBI mapped
Chinese and Russian communities in San Francisco for organized crime purposes, all Latino
communities in New Jersey and Alabama because there are street gangs, African Americans in
Georgia to find “Black separatists,” and Middle-Eastern communities in Detroit for terrorism.
The FBI also claimed the authority to sweep up voluminous amounts of information secretly
from state and local law enforcement and private data aggregators for data mining purposes. In
2007, the FBI said it amassed databases containing 1.5 billion records, which were predicted to
grow to 6 billion records by 2012, which is equal to 20 separate “records” for every person in the
United States. The largest of these databases, the Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force,
currently has 360 staff members running 40 separate projects. A 2013 Inspector General audit
determined it “did not always provide FBI field offices with timely and relevant information.”
The next section of the report discusses the ways the FBI avoids accountability by skirting
internal and external oversight. The FBI, which Congress exempted from the Whistleblower
Protection Act, effectively suppresses internal dissent by retaliating against employees who
report waste, fraud, abuse, and illegality. As a result, 28 percent of non-supervisory FBI employees surveyed by the Inspector General said they “never” reported misconduct they saw or
heard about on the job. The FBI also aggressively investigates other government whistleblowers,
which has led to an unprecedented increase in Espionage Act prosecutions over the last five
years. And the FBI’s overzealous pursuit of government whistleblowers has also resulted in the
inappropriate targeting of journalists for investigation, infringing on free press rights. Recent
coverage of overbroad subpoenas for telephone records of Associated Press journalists and an
inappropriate search warrant for a Fox News reporter are only the latest examples of abuse. In
2010 the Inspector General reported the FBI used an illegal “exigent letter” to obtain the
telephone records of 7 New York Times and Washington Post reporters. And the FBI thwarts
congressional oversight with excessive secrecy and delayed or misleading responses to
questions from Congress.
Finally, the report highlights evidence of abuse that requires greater regulation, oversight, and
public accountability. These include many examples of the FBI targeting First Amendment
activities by spying on protesters and religious groups with aggressive tactics that infringe on
their free speech, religion, and associational rights. In 2011, the ACLU exposed flawed and
biased FBI training materials that likely fueled these inappropriate investigations.
The FBI also operates increasingly outside the United States, where its activities are more
difficult to monitor. Several troubling cases indicate the FBI may have requested, facilitated,
and/or exploited the arrests of U.S. citizens by foreign governments, often without charges, so
they could be held and interrogated, sometimes tortured, and then interviewed by FBI agents.
The ACLU represents two proxy detention victims, including Amir Meshal, who was arrested
at the Kenya border in 2007 and subjected to more than four months of detention in three
different East African countries without charge, access to counsel, or presentment before a
judicial officer, at the behest of the U.S. government. FBI agents interrogated Meshal more than
thirty times during his detention.
Other Americans traveling abroad discover that their government has barred them from flying;
the number of U.S. persons on the No Fly List has doubled since 2009. There is no fair
procedure for those mistakenly placed on the list to challenge their inclusion. Many of those
prevented from flying home have been subjected to FBI interviews after seeking assistance from
U.S. Embassies. The ACLU is suing the government on behalf of 10 American citizens and
permanent residents who were prevented from flying to the U.S., arguing that barring them from
flying without due process is unconstitutional.
These FBI abuses of authority must end. We call on President Barack Obama and Attorney
General Eric Holder to tighten FBI authorities to prevent unnecessary invasions of Americans’
privacy; prohibit profiling based on race, ethnicity, religion and national origin; and protect First
Amendment activities. And we call on Congress to make these changes permanent through
statute and improve oversight to prevent future abuse. The FBI serves a crucial role in protecting
Americans, but it must protect our rights as it protects our security.