May 1, 2016

Stupid FBI tricks


Of the plans put forward by the federal government to identify and stop budding terrorists, among the least understood are the FBI’s “Shared Responsibility Committees.” The idea of the committees is to enlist counselors, social workers, religious figures, and other community members to intervene with people the FBI thinks are in danger of radicalizing — the sort of alternative to prosecution and jail time many experts have been clamoring for. But civil liberties groups worry the committees could become just a ruse to expand the FBI’s network of informants, and the government has refused to provide details about the program.

The Intercept has obtained a letter addressed to potential committee members from the FBI, outlining how the process would work. While the letter claims that committees will not be used “as a means to gather intelligence,” it also makes clear that information from the committees may be shared widely by the FBI, including with spy agencies and foreign governments, and that committee members can be subpoenaed for documents or called to testify in cases against the people they are trying to help. At the same time, committee members are forbidden even from seeking advice from outside experts without permission from the FBI.

The letter implies that Shared Responsibility Committees would emerge organically, as “multidisciplinary groups voluntarily formed in local communities — at the initiative of the group and sometimes with the encouragement of the FBI.” The FBI would refer “potentially violent extremists” to the SRC, whose members would design an intervention plan, possibly including mental health or substance abuse treatment and help with education or housing.

According to the letter, the FBI “may or may not” inform the committee of any ongoing investigation, and law enforcement could also decide to arrest or charge the referred individual without telling the SRC. If committee members give information to the FBI, “the FBI may share any information the SRC provides with other law enforcement agencies, members of the U.S. intelligence community, and foreign government agencies as needed.”

SRC members, in contrast, must sign confidentiality agreements, and cannot consult outside experts on treatment plans. The committee members get no special legal protection, raising concerns they could be held liable if an individual they are helping turns violent as feared.

“Our society has established a number of protective zones where you’re allowed to be candid: with your doctor, your religious clergy, even to a certain extent within a school system, with student privacy laws,” said Mike German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “This program that the FBI is setting up seems not to acknowledge those privileges, and in fact, seems to be intent on undermining them.”

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