Every 90 days for the past seven years, the government has acquired the full billing records of every American's daily telephone calls. Though the use of of secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court orders, the FBI has forced telecommunications companies to hand over records revealing such details as who individuals call, the length of those phone calls, and the locations of the callers. As the ACLU explains in a new report titled, "Unleashed and Unaccountable: The FBI's Unchecked Abuse of Authority," these secretive, unconstitutional, and ineffective invasions of privacy have become a mainstay in the post-9/11 domestic surveillance enterprise.
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, several significant changes in law and policy have vastly expanded the power of the FBI, enabling it to conduct widespread warrantless surveillance and utilize broad investigative authority. The passage of the Patriot Act and the accompanying secret interpretation of Section 215 have allowed the FBI to spy on Americans and gather an unprecedented amount of information about their personal lives.
The 2008 Attorney General Guidelines empowered the FBI to investigate individuals and groups with essentially no evidence of a potential crime and to carry out a racial and ethnic mapping program. The FBI has taken this power and run with it. The bureau has spied on activists, profiled entire communities on the basis of their race or religion, coerced individuals, particularly Muslims, into becoming FBI informants, and gathered an unimaginable amount of useless data.
All the while, Congress and the Justice Department provide little meaningful oversight. The FBI's power remains intact despite numerous reports indicating widespread violations of investigative guidelines and a consistent failure to adequately document inquiries. By withholding, delaying, and distorting information, the FBI keeps Congress in the dark and unable to check its power. The FBI has further evaded accountability by suppressing government whistleblowers who report abuses and targeting journalists.
The report rightfully points out that the FBI's abuses are discriminatory and unconstitutional. These practices disregard freedom of speech and religion while compromising the basic structures of accountability in our government. The ACLU recommends that the Attorney General and Congress take action to redefine the power of the FBI to be consistent with the rule of law, stop profiling, and shift resources away from wasteful practices.
Following the revelation of the FBI's decades-long covert surveillance programs in 1971, Congress placed similar limits on the FBI. These restraints were tossed to the wind in the wake of September 11 and need to be reinstated and expanded today. In times of crisis and uncertainty, we must remember these lessons from the past and see that we cannot afford to hand over boundless authority to the FBI.