Racial profiling on an “industrial scale”

The ACLU uncovers an FBI program that pairs Census data with "crude stereotypes" to map ethnic communities

Topics: Race, ACLU, ,

New documents obtained by the ACLU show that the FBI has for years been using Census data to “map” ethnic and religious groups suspected of being likely to commit certain types of crimes.

Much is still not known about the apparent large-scale effort in racial profiling, partly because the documents the ACLU obtained through public records requests are heavily redacted.

The FBI maintains that the mapping program is designed to “better understand the communities that are potential victims of the threats,” but the ACLU says it is plainly unconstitutional.

To learn more about the FBI program, its implications for civil liberties and the questions that remain unanswered, I spoke to Michael German, policy counsel at the ACLU’s Washington office and a former FBI agent.

What is the new information that has come to light here?

In 2008, the FBI’s guidelines were changed to create a new category of investigations called assessments, which required no factual predicate. The FBI’s policy in implementing those changes were released around 2010 and showed the FBI was engaged in a program called “domain management,” which included mapping and gathering intelligence on racial and ethnic communities. We were concerned about the program, so we filed a series of Freedom of Information Act  requests across the country and we now have documents that indicate what the FBI has been doing with this new authority. Clearly they have been engaging in crass racial stereotyping of minority groups are linked to certain types of crime, and then using Census information to map entire communities based on their race or ethnicity.

When you say “map,” what does that actually look like in practice?

It’s hard for us to know because all the maps were heavily redacted. It’s clear they are maps. They are using Census data in order to identify anybody who identifies with a certain race or ethnicity. In the Detroit memo, it’s based on adherence to Muslim faith or Middle Eastern origin. The purpose of the program is to identify these communities where the FBI can then conduct intelligence or law enforcement investigations.

So what sort of crimes have they linked to various racial groups?

There was a San Francisco memo that suggested because there was Chinese organized crime, there should be a domain management collection program to identify the entire Chinese community in the San Francisco area. That memo also included an effort to target the Russian-American community. There was an Atlanta FBI memo that purported to analyze the black separatist threat. It documented the population growth of blacks in Georgia as part of the assessment. It also identified a couple of actual organizations, but in the information, what is reported is their First Amendment activities: their appearances at different protests and at a congressional campaign event.

Is the ACLU arguing here that this program is unconstitutional?

Yes, we feel it is unconstitutional — and in many cases actually violates the Department of Justice guidance regarding the use of race in federal law enforcement. That guidance purports to ban racial profiling in ordinary law enforcement investigations. The problem is, it has a huge loophole for national security and border integrity investigations. What’s clear from these new documents is that the loophole has swallowed the rule because they are using this program to target communities based on their race in the context of normal criminal activity.

What part of the Constitution does this violate in the ACLU’s view?

It violates the First, Fourth and 14th amendments. This program is entirely targeting communities of people for investigation based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion, denying them equal protection under the law — and also targeting people because of their First Amendment-protected activities. They are then conducting broad suspicionless investigations called assessments, and collecting information in which there are Fourth Amendment concerns that it is unreasonable to conduct such invasive investigations.

One of the documents we released this week is an FBI memo to the field where they discuss what type of information they want collected during assessments. That document shows this isn’t a minimally invasive investigation. It collects a tremendous amount of material so the FBI can build dossiers against people with no reason to believe that they as individuals were involved in any kind of wrongdoing. It also authorizes what it calls a “disruption strategy,” in which, after all the information is collected and the threat is otherwise resolved, the FBI can continue doing other things like performing interviews, arrests and source-directed operations. Back in the Hoover era, the FBI’s COINTELPRO included a disruption strategy that was later found to be aimed at obstructing First Amendment-protected activity. So we have serious concerns about what this new disruption strategy might be doing and who is overseeing it.

When it comes to that Detroit memo about Muslims and terrorism, how do you respond to people who look at this and think, “This is what the FBI should be doing”?

This is racial and religious profiling on an industrial scale. Rather than just stopping an individual based on race, the FBI is identifying an entire community based on race and subjecting them to more intense scrutiny. There are many problems that exist with racial profiling: first that it’s unlawful, but also that it’s ineffective as a methodology because every dollar and every hour of an agent’s time that is spent investigating innocent people is completely wasted. It is also really a dangerous practice because all law enforcement depends on public support to be successful. If they’re alienating entire communities based on race or religion, that is going to be an entirely counter-productive methodology.

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 17
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    John Stanmeyer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Container City: Shipping containers, indispensable tool of the globalized consumer economy, reflect the skyline in Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports.

    Lu Guang

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Man Covering His Mouth: A shepherd by the Yellow River cannot stand the smell, Inner Mongolia, China

    Carolyn Cole/LATimes

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Angry Crowd: People jostle for food relief distribution following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

    Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    “Black Friday” Shoppers: Aggressive bargain hunters push through the front doors of the Boise Towne Square mall as they are opened at 1 a.m. Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Boise, Idaho, USA

    Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Suburban Sprawl: aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades.

    Garth Lentz

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Toxic Landscape: Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada

    Cotton Coulson/Keenpress

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Ice Waterfall: In both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, ice is retreating. Melting water on icecap, North East Land, Svalbard, Norway

    Yann Arthus-Bertrand

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Satellite Dishes: The rooftops of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest cities, are covered with satellite dishes, linking residents to a globalized consumer culture.

    Stephanie Sinclair

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Child Brides: Tahani, 8, is seen with her husband Majed, 27, and her former classmate Ghada, 8, and her husband in Hajjah, Yemen, July 26, 2010.

    Mike Hedge

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million

    Google Earth/ 2014 Digital Globe

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Big Hole: The Mir Mine in Russia is the world’s largest diamond mine.

    Daniel Dancer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Clear-cut: Industrial forestry degrading public lands, Willamette National Forest, Oregon

    Peter Essick

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Computer Dump: Massive quantities of waste from obsolete computers and other electronics are typically shipped to the developing world for sorting and/or disposal. Photo from Accra, Ghana.

    Daniel Beltra

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Oil Spill Fire: Aerial view of an oil fire following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Gulf of Mexico

    Ian Wylie

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Slide 13

    Airplane Contrails: Globalized transportation networks, especially commercial aviation, are a major contributor of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo of contrails in the west London sky over the River Thames, London, England.

    R.J. Sangosti/Denver Post

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Fire: More frequent and more intense wildfires (such as this one in Colorado, USA) are another consequence of a warming planet.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>