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The FBI: Going Rogue - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries
Written by John W. Whitehead   
Thursday, 17 February 2011 05:05

Little wonder, then, that FBI abuses keep mounting. Most recently, a report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) reveals that since 9/11, the FBI has been responsible for at least 40,000 violations of the law. Most of the violations are of “internal oversight guidelines,” while close to one-third are “abuse of National Security Letters,” and almost one-fifth are “violations of the Constitution, FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act], and other legal authorities.” Specific violations include “failure to submit notification of the investigation of a U.S. person to FBI headquarters for three years, ... failure to report a violation within 14 days of its discovery, [and] continuing to investigate a U.S. person when the authority to do so had expired.”

The FBI’s abuse of National Security Letters (NSL) has been brought to light by both the EFF and Justice Department investigations. NSLs were created in the 1970s for espionage and terrorism investigations. In effect, NSLs allow the FBI to bypass the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of a court-sanctioned search warrant in seeking information by allowing an agent to demand information on his or her mere say-so. They were originally intended as narrow exceptions in consumer-privacy law, enabling the FBI to review in secret the customer records of suspected foreign agents. However, they have since been used for clandestine scrutiny of American citizens, U.S. residents, and visitors who are not alleged to be terrorists or spies. As Barton Gellman noted in a 2005 piece in The Washington Post, “The FBI now issues more than 30,000 national security letters a year, a hundredfold increase over historic norms. The letters – one of which can be used to sweep up the records of many people – are extending the bureau’s reach as never before into the telephone calls, correspondence, and financial lives of ordinary Americans.” It has since been revealed that the FBI issued more than 140,000 National Security Letters between 2003 and 2005, many involving people with no obvious connections to terrorism.

In many cases, those now under surveillance by the FBI are ordinary American citizens doing nothing more than exercising their First Amendment right to free speech by criticizing the government. Moreover, according to a previously classified document, the FBI conducted clandestine surveillance on some U.S. residents for as long as 18 months at a time without a search warrant, proper paperwork, or oversight. The FBI has also continued to carry out surveillance on groups involved in various protest activities – mainly peace activities. For example, a case of mass raids by FBI agents against peace activists occurred in late 2010. On September 24, the homes of five peace activists in the Minneapolis area were raided by FBI agents at around seven in the morning. The agents filtered through all of the possessions in the activists’ homes and seized electronic devices such as computers and cell phones as well as other documents. Ostensibly, the mission was undertaken to investigate possible ties to foreign terrorist groups, but immediate evidence of such a connection was lacking. The activists targeted have been members in the antiwar and labor communities for many years.

Today, the FBI employs more than 35,000 individuals and operates more than 56 field offices in major cities across the U.S., as well as 400 resident agencies in smaller towns and more than 50 international offices. In addition to its “data campus,” which houses more than 96 million sets of fingerprints from across the United States and elsewhere, the FBI is also, according to The Washington Post, “building a vast repository controlled by people who work in a top-secret vault on the fourth floor of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington. This one stores the profiles of tens of thousands of Americans and legal residents who are not accused of any crime. What they have done is appear to be acting suspiciously to a town sheriff, a traffic cop, or even a neighbor.”

The agency’s reach is more invasive than ever, thanks to nearly unlimited resources (its minimum budget alone in Fiscal Year 2010 was $7.9 billion), the government’s vast arsenal of technology, the interconnectedness of government intelligence agencies, and information sharing through fusion centers – data-collecting intelligence agencies spread throughout the country that constantly monitor communications (including those of American citizens), everything from Internet activity and Web searches to text messages, phone calls, and e-mails. What’s more, you can be sure that the reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act by Congress will only further legitimize the FBI’s efforts to spy on American citizens, thereby destroying whatever shred of privacy remains.

So where does this leave us?

Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the first to recognize that as a nation we seem to have significantly passed from a nation of laws to a nation of men. Whereas the United States Constitution was once the rule of law, guarding our freedoms and shielding us from government abuses, we have entered a phase in our nation’s life in which the government largely operates above the law. The activities of the FBI are a perfect illustration of this.

Yet we would do well to remember that governments primarily exist to secure rights. This idea is central to constitutionalism, which serves to limit governmental power and ensure that the government performs its basic function: preserve and protect our rights, especially our unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and our civil liberties. Otherwise, we are destined to live in a police state.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His book The Freedom Wars is available at He can be contacted at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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