The Attorney General of the United States has just released new guidelines governing FBI investigations. Attorney General Michael Mukasey signed the guidelines, which replace existing guidelines for five types of investigations: general criminal, national security, foreign intelligence, civil disorders and demonstrations. Immediately, the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for ignoring calls for more, not less, protection for Americans’ rights, citing both the FBI’s and Department of Justice’s records of internal abuses.
The new guidelines reduce standards required to begin “assessments”, that is precursors to investigations, for conducting surveillance and gathering evidence. Thus the threshold to begin investigations across the board will be lowered. Further, the new guidelines allow the FBI to use a person’s race or ethnic background as a factor in opening an investigation.
The Executive Director of the ACLU, Anthony D. Romero, said: “The new guidelines provide no safeguards against the FBI’s improperly using race and religion as grounds for suspicion. They also fail to sufficiently prevent the government from infiltrating groups whose view points it doesn’t like. The FBI has shown time and time again that it is incapable of policing itself and there is good reason to believe that these guidelines will lead to more abuse.”
In the 1970’s, the FBI adopted internal guidelines after investigations revealed widespread abuses and violations of constitutional rights by the FBI, including the clearly politically-motivated spying on public figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. Those guidelines governed very different types of investigations, and tearing down the walls between those different types of investigations, as the new guidelines do, means the new powers will be applied in new types of investigations where they never were before. Of course, the FBI claims the new guidelines would not give agents new authority.
The Washington office of the ACLU was quoted as saying: “It is naive to think these guidelines will not result in abuse….the DOJ and FBI…are only doomed to repeat the abuses of the past…the FBI will be given carte blanche to begin surveillance without factual evidence. The standard of suspicion is so low that the predicate for investigations so flimsy that it’s inevitable we will all become suspects.”
The FBI is focusing only on “the threat”, meaning the targets of their investigations. The FBI always wants more power to use against the bad guys, and there are always bad guys to get. There is always some excuse de jour for unleashing law enforcement’s powers. They forget that this is the very danger foreseen by our Founding Fathers, the danger to citizens from an overly-muscled law enforcement. Our Founding Fathers knew that a greater danger to citizens than criminals was from police without restraints.
Law enforcement will always continue to push, to find excuses in this and that particular, discover some excuse to suspend or diminish another small area of citizen protection until the protections of the Constitution will be whittled away little by little until gone. If we cannot keep government restraints, we cannot preserve our Constitution. Yes, the issue is about good guys vs. bad guys. But the long term, more fundamental issue is permitting some bad guys to get away, as they inevitably will, so that we preserve restraints on the police. The only sure way to get all the bad guys is to turn the United States into Nazi Germany. That was a very efficient government with absolutely no restraints to stand in the way of law enforcement.