What has the FBI been up to for the past 15 years, and will a Trump presidency change anything?

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When Donald Trump assumes the Presidency at noon on January 20, he will be instantly placed in charge of a vast array of repressive apparatuses. Given his calls for a Muslim registry, surveillance of mosques, and cabinet full of Islamphobes, the thought of Trump heading the surveillance state is horrifying. While a significant amount of attention has been paid to what high-tech capacity to gather information, such as the capabilities of the NSA, means for Trump Islamophobic surveillance agenda, the FBI not only provides Trump with the means to surveil Muslims, it is already doing so.

Following revelations about the FBI’s widespread political surveillance, such as its infamous harassment of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, the Attorney General was forced to put into place guidelines to prevent the FBI from abusing power. However, because these Guidelines were a creation of the executive branch that meant the Attorney General could easily change them–which they did repeatedly. In 2008,  the Attorney General Guidelines were weakened to allow the FBI to engage in pre-investigation “assessments” without any suspicion whatsoever of wrongdoing. While there is no golden era during which the FBI didn’t run roughshod over the  First Amendment , the loosening of these standards made it much easier to do so. And nowhere is this more clear than in the FBI’s targeting of Muslim-Americans.  

The FBI has sent paid informants  into Muslim communities, even mosques, to track people’s religious and political views without even the slightest hint of suspicion that anything resembling a crime may take place.

Once in Muslims communities, infiltrators oftentimes make it incumbent upon themselves to ensnare people in phony terror plots. They approach individuals, suspected of nothing other than being Muslim, relentlessly and manipulatively pursue them, espousing extremist and violent viewpoints, showing them pictures of atrocities committed against Muslim in US wars, offering them friendship, often drugs and alcohol, and cash. .

Take the example of James Cromitie, now serving a 25 year prison sentence for agreeing to participate in a terror scheme entirely designed by the FBI. An FBI informant preyed on Cromitie’s poverty and desperation, offering gifts, cash, and a car to entice Cromitie to take part in a scheme to bomb a synagogue. Cromitie tried to evade the informant for weeks, until he lost his job at Wal-Mart and succumbed to the offer of almost $250,000 and a new BMW. As the presiding judge in the case noted, “government did not have to infiltrate and foil some nefarious plot – there was no nefarious plot to foil.” Cromitie, like his co-defendants, had no connections to any terrorism beyond the government informant, whom he encountered in a parking lot at a mosque. It is unlikely that without the financial inducement or Cromitie own financially precarious situation that Cromitie would ever have agreed to anything.

The FBI has also used so-called “community outreach” to amass intelligence about Muslim-Americans. Community outreach is conducted under the auspices of the Office of Public Affairs and is supposed to foster communication between the FBI and the public at large. These include programs like “mosque outreach” supposedly designed to foster better relationships between the Muslim community and federal law enforcement.  Yet, documents obtained by American Civil Liberties Union through the Freedom of Information Act show how FBI used the community outreach program to spy on Muslims, and gather information on their political views. FBI field agents have shown up on the door steps of prominent Muslims-American civil rights activists asking questions, only to later to claim they were merely doing “community outreach.”

The FBI is under further scrutiny for home visits it made to Muslim-Americans in the lead up to the election. Around 109 Muslim-Americans reported to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group, that just days before the election they were visited at home by FBI. These visits took place across the country and individuals were told that the FBI wanted to ask them about an al-Qaeda plot to target the US election. Given the geographic breadth it appears the FBI was on a fishing expedition and the nature of the questions and proximity to election have raised concerns.

Many have properly reacted with horror at Trump’s calls to surveil mosques and his general Islamophobic rhetoric. But that is hardly a departure from current practice. The FBI already has informants crawling through mosques and Muslim neighborhoods where no criminal activity is suspected, asking people about their religious and political views. Trump can certainly escalate this practice, increasing the degree of surveillance or the use of agent provocateurs, but he himself won’t initiating a new process.
Trump should not access to these kinds of tools, because no President should. These FBI actions were just as wrong under Obama, Bush, and previous administrations and Congress should have acted to check the FBI’s powers. With Trump’s impending occupancy of the Oval House, Congress must waste no time in rediscovering its powers of oversight.