The State of Surveillance in Chicago and the Nation

Feature 340On June 6, 2009, the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights hosted a forum entitled The State of Surveillance in the Surveillance State: Chicago and the Nation. Drawing from a number of civil rights organizations, the forum revealed the expansive use of surveillance by government agencies, with the assistance of private organizations outside any public scrutiny. The consensus from the speakers was that we are facing unprecedented invasions of privacy, with real consequences for populations subject to the U.S. government’s focus, currently immigrant groups.

Mike German, who previously worked as a special agent for the FBI and now serves the ACLU, reported on the proliferation of “fusion centers.” These secret entities are formed when law enforcement and non-law enforcement work together to gather information on anyone without any particular focus, such as mining through emails with a certain search term. Mr. German estimates that there are approximately 70 fusion centers in the country, each one having unique operations. Under federal law, a law enforcement agency cannot share information with an external person or entity unless there is a “reasonable suspicion of criminality” – a standard that cannot be met when the fusion center has no focus on specific criminal acts.

Shahid Buttar, from the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, emphasized how the FBI has targeted Muslims by infiltrating mosques and using undercover informants. (Special Agent Robert Grant has recently stated that individuals may be targeted, but denied allegations of systematic spying on Mosques.) Under new attorney general guidelines implemented in December 2008, the FBI no longer needs a “factual predicate” to initiate an investigation, essentially allowing the FBI to conduct surveillance based on racial profiling. Worse yet, the new guidelines ease reporting requirements from agents to supervisors and federal prosecutors, providing no oversight on the profiling that individual agents perform.

From a local perspective, I bolstered Mr. Buttar’s remarks, reporting how the FBI currently has been targeting Somalis for interrogation as a result of a member of the community in Minnesota returning to Somalia and committing a suicide attack. We have also heard reports of the FBI seeking out informants with the rationale that they want to “create a dialogue with the Muslim community to address the troublemakers and leave the rest alone.” Given the recent development in the Bronx case, where an informant was used to purportedly convince a group of ex-convicts to bomb synagogues, we remain very weary of the FBI’s attempt to solicit informants from the community.

Sue Udry, Executive Director of the Defending Dissent Foundation in Washington, D.C., expressed how we need to utilize the Freedom of Information Act to gain as much information as possible regarding the use of surveillance. Most importantly, the FBI’s decision to target certain groups has been ineffective, as revealed by the recent murder of abortion doctor George Tiller. Despite having specific knowledge that the accused, Scott Roeder, had vandalized another abortion facility on at least two occasions, as shown by the facility’s security tape and a staff member obtaining his license plate number, the FBI took no action to arrest Mr. Roeder or monitor his activities. See

It is time that we put an end to racial profiling and intrusive surveillance without probable cause or any oversight. Instead, we encourage law enforcement agencies to uphold their duty to serve and protect this country in a manner consistent with our Constitution.

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