Many FBI Agents Find Racial Profiling Useless, But Those Up Top Feel It's Just A Failure To Get Everyone On Board

from the Assistant-Regional-Director-of-First/Fourth-Amendment-Violations dept

The recently-released 9/11 Commission's review of FBI tactics in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks seems to suggest the agency should perform even more racial profiling than it already does. As Kevin Gosztola of Firedoglake points out, the language in the report places a lot of emphasis on "domain awareness" and pre-crime policing.

Documents the American Civil Liberties Union have been able to obtain show [PDF] that “FBI analysts make judgments based on crude stereotypes about the types of crimes different racial and ethnic groups commit, which they then use to justify collecting demographic data to map where people with that racial or ethnic makeup live.” The FBI uses “domain analysis” to target American Muslims and Islamic institutions.
The similarities between this suggested course of action and the NYPD's infamous "Demographics Unit" (led by a former CIA official) are notable. Both involve questionable tactics like declaring entire mosques "terrorist organizations" simply because attendees followed the same religion as the 9/11 attackers. Notably, the FBI found the NYPD's tactics so thoroughly violated the rights of those being surveilled that it refused to access any of the intelligence gathered by the Demographics Unit. That decision ultimately cost the FBI nothing in terms of usable intel. Despite years of rights violations and round-the-clock surveillance, the NYPD's special unit was never instrumental in preventing attacks or producing significant arrests.

Marcy Wheeler at Emptywheel notes that the FBI's analysis of the 9/11 Commission's reports indicates a significant percentage of FBI agents found racial profiling and pre-crime "investigations" to be a waste of time.

According to one anecdote, 20% of analysts (not even Field Agents!) understand the point of this. And even in offices where they do understand, the Field Agents won’t do their part by going and filling in the blanks analysts identify.

The "blanks" are contained in CSCCs (Central Strategic Coordinating Components), linked to field offices' "domain awareness" programs. But one-fifth of agents refused to comply with this directive -- not because 20% of FBI agents are necessarily against racial profiling (documents obtained by the ACLU show otherwise) -- but because the tactic just doesn't work.
Call me crazy. But maybe the people responding to actual crimes believe they learn enough in that process — and are plenty busy enough trying to catch criminals — that they don’t see the point of racially profiling people like NYPD does? Maybe they believe the ongoing threats are where the past ones have been, and there’s no need to spend their time investigating where there aren’t crimes in case there ever are in the future?
Doing investigative work like investigators, rather than like surveillance dragnets? That's probably crazy enough to work. Not that the FBI has any desire to dial back its requests for encryption backdoors and unfettered access to electronic communications, but those actually out in the field seem to know what works and what doesn't. And a constant APB for anyone fitting the "Muslim/Male" description isn't exactly helpful.

Of course, those at the top -- the ones finding this to be a credible way to fight terrorism -- see this 20% as outliers who have failed to "get on the bus." And in a mixture of the worst parts of bureaucracy and corporate culture, they've responded with "do more of what isn't productive, only faster and harder."
Yet rather than analyzing whether this concept serves any purpose whatsoever, it instead says, “it’s corporate policy, no one is doing it well, so it needs to improve.”
There's a lesson here, but those writing the review aren't comprehending it. (Wheeler notes that many of those interviewed for the report aren't actually FBI agents, but rather representatives of other intelligence agencies, like the CIA.) To catch terrorists, you need smarter investigative work, not work that involves blanket surveillance and the rote filling in of blanks. The NYPD should know this, considering its failure to catch plots later uncovered by the FBI, but it doesn't. Despite the disbandment of the "Demographics Unit," it still clings to the belief that mass surveillance beats real police work any day of the week. The FBI has figured this out -- or at least a percentage of its agents have -- but that's not going to be enough to persuade those calling for more of everything to dial back their efforts a bit.

The FBI can be smart, but it's apparently hampered by upper management with an obvious fondness for bad ideas that simultaneously expand the agency's power. If it is how it looks, the real aim of the agency heads is more power, not fewer terrorist attacks.

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Filed Under: fbi, nypd, racial profiling, terrorism


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2015 @ 1:40am

    It should work thou. Obviously the islamic communities are more likely to be talking with IS than a pensioner club.

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