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FBI Guidelines Weaken Separation of Community Outreach and Intelligence Gathering Efforts

Community outreach programs are a staple of modern law enforcement, designed to build trust, address local concerns, and communicate effectively with the public — at least in theory. But in recent years, some outreach programs have revealed an ulterior motive at work: intelligence gathering. Revised FBI guidelines obtained by the Brennan Center show that these programs — which claim to be aimed at building public trust — appear indifferent to the toll on community relationships caused by treating potential partners as intelligence subjects.

In early 2015, the Brennan Center published a report cautioning the FBI against combining community outreach with intelligence gathering activities. Based on a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, we found that outreach efforts involving the Somali community in Minneapolis-St. Paul had morphed into an intelligence tool for the FBI in 2009. Local police had received a federal grant to exploit previously successful community outreach efforts by generating a list of “radicalized youth” that would be shared with the FBI, although officials maintain the plan never came to fruition.

The Minneapolis area wasn’t alone. An internal FBI memo designated FBI field offices in Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Seattle, San Diego, Washington, D.C., and Denver for similar “specialized outreach” programs, intended to support FBI Field Intelligence Groups and other “operational programs throughout the Bureau.” And according to documents obtained by the ACLU, the FBI used “mosque outreach” in San Francisco and San Jose as a cover for intelligence gathering, despite the fact that such “outreach” activities erode community trust and foster a sense of fear and betrayal. (See here, here, and here for statements and testimony on the damage to trust in law enforcement.)

Responding to these concerns, the FBI implied that it had changed its ways. It pointed to a new set of guidelines for community outreach, revised in 2013, which required officers to maintain “appropriate separation of operational and outreach efforts.” But the new rules remained secret and the Bureau would not say whether they prohibit the kind of “specialized outreach” that raised concerns in Minneapolis and elsewhere. The Brennan Center filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit to compel production of the 2013 guidelines, a copy of which we recently received and analyzed.

While the new guidelines recognize that community outreach and intelligence gathering should be kept separate, they do not specify — much less strengthen — the rules for doing so. In both substance and tone, the new guidelines depart from the 2010 policy, which had stressed that outreach personnel “must operate with honesty and transparency” for the sake of “developing trust and confidence.” By contrast, the 2013 guidelines appear geared toward using outreach as a means of investigative and operational support.

The 2010 guidelines recognized that individuals engaged in FBI outreach programs “do not have an expectation that information about them will be maintained in an FBI file or database” and prohibited outreach personnel from reporting to intelligence analysts or operational squads and task forces. The 2013 rules make no such assumption or promises. While they promise “frequent review mechanisms” to check that outreach personnel do not engage in “impermissible investigatory activity,” they also require community outreach personnel to coordinate with the “field intelligence group (FIG) and operation squads” to avoid disrupting investigative or intelligence activities. Indeed, the rules go so far as to instruct members of the FIG and operational squads to “ask if they can be included in [outreach] meetings that might affect their activities.” In other words, “outreach” meetings may involve intelligence agents and investigators in addition to community outreach personnel, and nothing in the guidelines requires them to disclose their true role.

To be sure, the 2010 guidelines were not without their flaws, which the Brennan Center has criticized. But instead of strengthening the separation of outreach and intelligence activities, the 2013 make clear that the Bureau’s outreach activities are in service of its operational priorities.

This March, the FBI was slated to revisit the 2013 guidelines and, presumably, publish another revision. (The Brennan Center has already filed a FOIA request for the latest version.) We hope to find that the FBI has registered the sense of betrayal expressed by communities that have been on the receiving end of intelligence operations disguised as outreach and has taken concrete steps to separate the two. But we will not be surprised to learn otherwise.

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About the Author

serves as counsel for the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. You can follow him on Twitter (@michaelwprice).