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FBI must come clean on targeting racial-justice activists before sweeping surveillance powers are renewed

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On Wednesday, the FBI takes its request for renewed spying powers before the House Judiciary Committee. It wants Congress to reauthorize its sweeping surveillance authority, even as numerous internal leaks reveal the bureau’s unlawful spying on peaceful protesters — particularly protesters who are people of color. Congress must refuse to renew these powers, originally authorized under the deeply problematic PATRIOT Act, which amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, until the FBI submits to proper oversight and transparency.

In 2017, we saw the first leak. The bureau had fabricated a new label, “Black-Identity Extremists,” to make up a non-existent threat to national security. The FBI’s counterterrorism division used flawed logic to claim that people protesting due to “perceptions of police brutality against African Americans” were a danger to state and local police officers. That assessment was distributed to hundreds of law enforcement offices, and likely used to justify heightened scrutiny of the movement for black lives.

After testifying in Congress in 2019 that they no longer use the discriminatory classification, recent leaks out of the FBI indicate that is just not accurate. The bureau may have simply changed the name, but it’s still targeting racial justice advocates. An investigation last month by The Young Turks identified a program called “Iron Fist,” created to spy on civil rights protesters and infiltrate their ranks.

More recently, documents leaked to Yahoo News reveal the FBI targeting people protesting President Donald Trump’s border policies. Again, in these reports, the bureau labels peaceful protesters “extremists” and a potential security threat. They claim that people who speak out for racial justice are “increasingly arming themselves and using lethal force to further their goals” without providing evidence to support this dangerous accusation. But recent mass shootings have shown yet again what America’s most active and prolific domestic threat is: armed white supremacists intent on endangering the lives of people in other racial, ethnic and religious communities.

To be clear, none of this is new. The FBI has a long history of unlawfully spying on, and attempting to disrupt, the fight for racial justice and other movements. In a 2017 letter, Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) leadership explained, “the FBI has a troubling history of utilizing its broad investigatory power to target black citizens. For example, the FBI falsified letters in an effort to blackmail Martin Luther King, Jr. into silence.” That’s why, as the CBC leadership concluded, “[g]iven this history, and given several concerning actions this administration has taken on racial issues, members of the Congressional Black Caucus are justifiably concerned.”

The detailed leaks from the FBI only tell part of the story. Members of Congress seeking answers from the FBI have been stonewalled, at best, and possibly even lied to. While the FBI has testified that it no longer uses the Black-Identity Extremist classification, these leaks show that’s not true.

The bureau also recently changed the way it classifies domestic terrorism investigations. Alarmingly, FBI spokespeople say that the bureau has dropped white-supremacist violence as a category at a time when hate crimes targeting communities of color are on the rise. These changes are significant because they allow the FBI to potentially hide the fact that they are not putting the appropriate resources behind investigating actual violent threats across the country. Instead, they make up new categories for supposed black extremists with no evidence of any credible threat and divert resources towards spying and harassing those who speak out in defense of their rights.

The powers granted to law enforcement following the attacks on Sept. 11 were sweeping and would be dangerous in the hands of any administration, but Trump’s FBI poses a unique threat to our most vulnerable communities. A brave whistleblower in the FBI is taking on significant risks to warn the public that this administration is systematically working to shut down dissent and squash the free speech rights that are the cornerstone of democratic society. Congress has asked oversight questions, but the bureau’s responses have been inadequate at best.

Until the FBI submits to proper oversight and acts to dismantle these unlawful and discriminatory programs, Congress cannot in good conscience renew these sweeping surveillance powers.

Sandra Fulton is the government relations director for Free Press Action.

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