F.B.I. Focusing on Security Over Ordinary Crime

August 25, 2011

The New York Times on August 23, 2011 released the following:

“By CHARLIE SAVAGE

WASHINGTON — Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation have been more likely to be hunting for potential threats to national security than for ordinary criminals in recent years, but much of the time found neither, according to newly disclosed internal information.

Data from a recent two-year period showed that the bureau opened 82,325 assessments of people and groups in search for signs of wrongdoing. Agents closed out most of the assessments, the lowest-level of F.B.I. investigation, without finding information that justified a more intensive inquiry.

Separately, the bureau also initiated 1,819 assessments during the period to identify any possible threats within particular geographic districts. That activity ranged from looking for the presence of particular organizations, like gangs or terrorist groups with definable characteristics, to evaluating other potential vulnerabilities, like a university with classified research and many foreign students.

The data, obtained by The New York Times under the Freedom of Information Act, offers a panoramic view of the bureau’s activities toward the end of a decade-long effort to transform the F.B.I. from a law-enforcement agency focused on solving crimes to a domestic intelligence agency whose mission is to detect potential threats before they can reach fruition.

The disclosure, covering March 25, 2009, to March 31, 2011, focused on assessments, which an agent may open “proactively or in response to investigative leads” and without first having a particular factual basis for suspecting a target of wrongdoing, according to the F.B.I. manual. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey issued guidelines for the bureau creating that category in 2008.

During an assessment, agents may use a limited set of techniques, including searching databases about targets, conducting surveillance of their movements and sending a confidential informant to an organization’s meetings. But to use more intrusive techniques, like secretly reading e-mail, agents must open a more traditional “preliminary” or “full” investigation. Such inquiries require agents to first have a greater reason to start scrutinizing someone: either an “information or allegation” or an “articulable factual basis” indicating possible wrongdoing.

According to the data, during the 2009-11 period agents opened 42,888 assessments of people or groups to see whether they were terrorists or spies. A database search in May 2011 showed that 41,056 of the assessments had been closed. Information gathered by agents during those assessments had led to 1,986 preliminary or full investigations.

The data also showed that agents initiated 39,437 assessments of people or groups to see whether they were engaged in ordinary crime. Of those, 36,044 had been closed, while 1,329 preliminary or full investigations had been opened based on the information gathered.

Michael German, a former F.B.I. agent who is now with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the high number of assessments relative to the number that developed into more intensive investigations was cause for concern. He noted that the F.B.I. retained the data it collects about a target, even if the person or group turns out to be innocent.

“It’s clear the F.B.I. is casting its investigative net too broadly,” Mr. German said. “And remember that only a small proportion of ‘preliminary’ investigations become ‘full’ investigations, and only a small percentage of full investigations result in criminal charges. This data makes it clear that the ‘assessment’ authority granted in the attorney general guidelines is far too broad.”

But Valerie E. Caproni, the F.B.I. general counsel, said that the data showed that agents had been able to dispose of about 96 percent of the low-grade reasons they might have had for suspecting someone of wrongdoing, like a vague tip or some other ambiguous lead, using “low intrusion techniques” rather than by opening a potentially more invasive preliminary investigation.

The new investigation standards, Ms. Caproni said, “end up being privacy protective because previously, without a well-developed, robust assessment category, many if not most of those would have been opened as preliminary investigations.”

The newly disclosed data roughly matched a far more limited disclosure earlier this year about assessments of people and groups generated in late 2008 and early 2009, but the latest data covered a longer period and included additional detail. The data also bolsters the F.B.I.’s assertion that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the bureau has taken low-grade tips about national security threats more seriously than similarly vague and seemingly implausible leads about possible criminal activity. The 39,437 criminal assessments were based on 73,303 complaints received by the F.B.I., indicating that about half of the time, agents merely filled out a complaint form but saw nothing worth following up on.

In contrast, the disclosure did not offer a separate number of national security complaints, suggesting that some were not followed up with an assessment. The bureau says its policy calls for every national security-related tip, no matter how dubious, to be investigated. Still, Ms. Caproni cautioned that the assessment data did not offer a complete view of the F.B.I.’s activities. For example, she said, if the Central Intelligence Agency told the bureau that an overseas source had provided a specific claim about a terrorist cell operating inside the United States, agents would immediately open a more intensive investigation rather than starting with an assessment.

She also cautioned that some details about the numbers might be fuzzy. In the past, for example, the F.B.I. has noted that one assessment may uncover information that leads to more than one preliminary investigation. At the same time, agents may occasionally have neglected, when opening a preliminary investigation, to record the fact that it developed out of an assessment.

The new data also showed that while the agency has opened fewer assessments looking for broader intelligence about possible threats and vulnerabilities within a district, a category it calls Type 3 assessments, it has been slower to close them. Of the 1,819 it had opened during the period, 1,056 were open by May.

Those figures covered Type 3 assessments generated both by national security programs — like domestic and international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and counterintelligence — and criminal programs, like civil rights, gangs, organized crime, violent crime and white-collar crime. The F.B.I. censored the specific breakdown for each category. The data release comes as the F.B.I. is preparing to issue agents a new version of its manual, the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, that will relax some rules about the techniques allowed at the assessment stage. Ms. Caproni said the new rulebook is at the printer now, and a partly redacted version is likely to be released to the public at the same time it takes effect around mid-October.”

To find additional federal criminal news, please read Federal Crimes Watch Daily.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the U.S. law firm practice and write extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Red Notice Removal, International Extradition and OFAC SDN List Removal.

The author of this blog is Douglas McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.

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FBI’s Significant New Powers

June 13, 2011

The New York Times on June 12, 2011 published the following By Charlie Savage:

Valerie E. Caproni
Valerie E. Caproni

F.B.I. Agents Get Leeway to Push Privacy Bounds

WASHINGTON — The Federal Bureau of Investigation is giving significant new powers to its roughly 14,000 agents, allowing them more leeway to search databases, go through household trash or use surveillance teams to scrutinize the lives of people who have attracted their attention.

The F.B.I. soon plans to issue a new edition of its manual, called the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, according to an official who has worked on the draft document and several others who have been briefed on its contents. The new rules add to several measures taken over the past decade to give agents more latitude as they search for signs of criminal or terrorist activity.

The F.B.I. recently briefed several privacy advocates about the coming changes. Among them, Michael German, a former F.B.I. agent who is now a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that it was unwise to further ease restrictions on agents’ power to use potentially intrusive techniques, especially if they lacked a firm reason to suspect someone of wrongdoing.

“Claiming additional authorities to investigate people only further raises the potential for abuse,” Mr. German said, pointing to complaints about the bureau’s surveillance of domestic political advocacy groups and mosques and to an inspector general’s findings in 2007 that the F.B.I. had frequently misused “national security letters,” which allow agents to obtain information like phone records without a court order.

Valerie E. Caproni, the F.B.I. general counsel, said the bureau had fixed the problems with the national security letters and had taken steps to make sure they would not recur. She also said the bureau, which does not need permission to alter its manual so long as the rules fit within broad guidelines issued by the attorney general, had carefully weighed the risks and the benefits of each change.

“Every one of these has been carefully looked at and considered against the backdrop of why do the employees need to be able to do it, what are the possible risks and what are the controls,” she said, portraying the modifications to the rules as “more like fine-tuning than major changes.”

Some of the most notable changes apply to the lowest category of investigations, called an “assessment.” The category, created in December 2008, allows agents to look into people and organizations “proactively” and without firm evidence for suspecting criminal or terrorist activity.

Under current rules, agents must open such an inquiry before they can search for information about a person in a commercial or law enforcement database. Under the new rules, agents will be allowed to search such databases without making a record about their decision.

Mr. German said the change would make it harder to detect and deter inappropriate use of databases for personal purposes. But Ms. Caproni said it was too cumbersome to require agents to open formal inquiries before running quick checks. She also said agents could not put information uncovered from such searches into F.B.I. files unless they later opened an assessment.

The new rules will also relax a restriction on administering lie-detector tests and searching people’s trash. Under current rules, agents cannot use such techniques until they open a “preliminary investigation,” which — unlike an assessment — requires a factual basis for suspecting someone of wrongdoing. But soon agents will be allowed to use those techniques for one kind of assessment, too: when they are evaluating a target as a potential informant.

Agents have asked for that power in part because they want the ability to use information found in a subject’s trash to put pressure on that person to assist the government in the investigation of others. But Ms. Caproni said information gathered that way could also be useful for other reasons, like determining whether the subject might pose a threat to agents.

The new manual will also remove a limitation on the use of surveillance squads, which are trained to surreptitiously follow targets. Under current rules, the squads can be used only once during an assessment, but the new rules will allow agents to use them repeatedly. Ms. Caproni said restrictions on the duration of physical surveillance would still apply, and argued that because of limited resources, supervisors would use the squads only rarely during such a low-level investigation.

The revisions also clarify what constitutes “undisclosed participation” in an organization by an F.B.I. agent or informant, which is subject to special rules — most of which have not been made public. The new manual says an agent or an informant may surreptitiously attend up to five meetings of a group before those rules would apply — unless the goal is to join the group, in which case the rules apply immediately.

At least one change would tighten, rather than relax, the rules. Currently, a special agent in charge of a field office can delegate the authority to approve sending an informant to a religious service. The new manual will require such officials to handle those decisions personally.

In addition, the manual clarifies a description of what qualifies as a “sensitive investigative matter” — investigations, at any level, that require greater oversight from supervisors because they involve public officials, members of the news media or academic scholars.

The new rules make clear, for example, that if the person with such a role is a victim or a witness rather than a target of an investigation, extra supervision is not necessary. Also excluded from extra supervision will be investigations of low- and midlevel officials for activities unrelated to their position — like drug cases as opposed to corruption, for example.

The manual clarifies the definition of who qualifies for extra protection as a legitimate member of the news media in the Internet era: prominent bloggers would count, but not people who have low-profile blogs. And it will limit academic protections only to scholars who work for institutions based in the United States.

Since the release of the 2008 manual, the assessment category has drawn scrutiny because it sets a low bar to examine a person or a group. The F.B.I. has opened thousands of such low-level investigations each month, and a vast majority has not generated information that justified opening more intensive investigations.

Ms. Caproni said the new manual would adjust the definition of assessments to make clear that they must be based on leads. But she rejected arguments that the F.B.I. should focus only on investigations that begin with a firm reason for suspecting wrongdoing.”

To find additional federal criminal news, please read The Federal Crimes Watch Daily.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the U.S. law firm practice and write extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Red Notice Removal, International Extradition and OFAC SDN List Removal.

The author of this blog is Douglas McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.

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