The American Civil Liberties Union has launched a new project on its Web site called Spy Files to track incidents of illegal domestic spying by federal, state, and local government.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has launched an updated Web project called Spy Files to track incidents of illegal domestic spying by federal, state, and local government.
The civil liberties group maintains that the level of government surveillance on U.S. citizens is counter to the country's values and harks back to previous eras, such as the FBI's COINTELPRO and the CIA's Operation Chaos, where the government routinely violated the civil rights of its citizens.
"Today the government is spying on Americans in ways the founders of our country never could have imagined," the ACLU Web site states. "Intelligence agencies, the military, state and local police, private companies, and even emergency services are gathering detailed information and sharing it through new institutions like joint terrorism task forces, fusion centers, and public-private partnerships, allowing any one of them to instantly produce electronic dossiers on ordinary Americans with a simple mouse-click."
Last week, the ACLU released a 27-page report (.pdf), "Policing Free Speech ," which lists reported incidents of government agents across 33 states monitoring the activities of peaceful Americans exercising their First Amendment rights. Some examples from the last few years are:
♦ During testimony in 2009, an FBI agent told the court that an informant had been planted at the Islamic Center in Irvine, California. The surveillance, notes the ACLU, led some worshipers to avoid the mosque and end their contributions for fear of questioning or being labeled an extremist.
♦ In January 2007, Hartford, Connecticut, police arrested activist Ken Krayeske after he photographed Gov. Jodi Rell during her inaugural parade. Prior to the event state police had issued a security bulletin with Krayeske's face warning he may be a threat to Rell because he wrote critically about the governor on his blog.
♦ During a Veterans for Peace event in Albany, New York, in 2005, the federal government spied on member John Amidon who spoke about honesty in military recruiting and discrimination of gays in the military.
The ACLU also highlights the role fusion centers—intelligence-collecting and -sharing hubs staffed by federal, state, and local government personnel and private contractors—play in creating powerful surveillance capabilities in states across the United States. Over the past year, the group has obtained fusion center reports from Virginia, Texas, Missouri, and Massachusetts it calls "troubling," because the documents cast suspicion on groups such as African Americans, Muslims, and militia members.
While the ACLU is clearly worried fusion center involvement in domestic spying, it does acknowledge that the federal government has made improvements to the fusion center model. In December, DHS issued new guidelines (.pdf) that mandate fusion centers certify civil liberty and privacy protections before receiving federal money.
(For more on fusion centers and civil liberties and privacy concerns, see "Civil Liberty Concerns Could Become a Factor in Grants to State Fusion Centers .")
Nevertheless, the ACLU argues that these varied government surveillance powers situated in different institutions continue to increase without oversight from elected legislatures or the public.
"The erosion of reasonable restrictions on government's power to collect people's personal information is putting the privacy and free speech rights of all Americans at risk," the ACLU says.
♦ Photo of Veterans for Peace protest by jenjoaquin/Flickr