FBI’S Unwarranted Encroachment on Our Privacy

I met an old friend I grew up with for lunch in Boston — he was a former high ranking cop.  We were chatting away and talking about some of the happenings in the city.  We got into a discussion about organized crime in America.  He said to me, “You want to know what’s the biggest organized crime group in America.”  I figured it was a rhetorical question so I remained quiet expecting he’d give the answer such as  the Mafia or something a little different like the Banksters.

He pointed at the Center Plaza building and said, “It’s the suits who work there.”   This is the location of the FBI offices in Boston; suits is a nickname a lot of cops hung on the agents.   My friend honestly believes that the FBI holds that title.  This stems from its first commandment  and the results that flow from obeying it.    He points out that the little that manages to leak out about the inner workings of the FBI shows that the corruption must be widespread because it operates like a hermetically sealed empire, sort of our own little North Korea.

We’ll explore this because knowledge about the capability of the FBI for evil is essential if we are to never again have Whitey Bulger type situations, but even more so that we can become an aware society.  The FBI is a police group.  It has over 14,000 agents.  Over the years it has accrued more and more power.

Right after 9/11 it eased rules on surveillance. It was given power to issue national security letters and it abused it.  Last year it was reported that it planned to give the 14,000 agents the ability to act proactively and look for crimes.

These most recent changes in rules relate to an investigative category created in 2008 called an “assessment”.  This allows agents to begin investigating people and organizations without firm evidence and without making any record of it.  They can examine databases, administer lie detector tests, search people’s trash and surveil people using FBI teams for up to five times.  This would be bad enough if the FBI followed its own rules but if the Connolly case which opened the door to its secret world demonstrated anything, as shown in Don’t Embarrass The Family, it is that the FBI doesn’t follow its own rules.

Why no record of what they are doing?  Valerie E. Caproni, the F.B.I. general counsel said “it was too cumbersome to require agents to open formal inquiries before running quick checks.”  All it involves is making a record of it like writing a name down on a piece of paper and giving it to a secretary!  Why is that cumbersome when it comes to allowing an agent to use databases to mine for  information on an American citizen?

This is worrisome in a free society.  We have a police force that no longer is confined to investigating crimes but it now investigates people who are not criminals and keeps no record of what it is doing.  A law abiding American citizen can have a small part of his or her life uncovered without knowing it and without the ability to do anything about it.   The FBI says one of the purposes of doing this is put pressure on a person to assist the government in the investigation of others.

Unless you are willing to have publicly exposed everything you do then you are subject to being blackmailed (“pressured”) by the FBI.  Suppose your spouse, child or close friend is receiving psychiatric treatment that you’re trying to keep quiet.  The FBI finds out about it secretly combing through your records.  They want you to help them spy on your neighbor or a fellow worker or member of your religious group.  They suggest if you don’t they’ll reveal this.  All of a sudden you’re life is turned upside down.  If you cooperate you’ve lost your freedom and every incentive will be on you to do so.  For the hardy few who will have the gumption to complain, there will be no record of it ever happening.

I’ll write about the right of privacy later but remember that right only comes about in the courtroom setting.  The idea of our society is that the rights enforceable in the courtroom are to be honored by those charged with enforcing the laws outside the court house.  That also is another subject to discuss later.

But right now, today, we’re at the point where a police group, some consider less than upright, is empowered to chase after us looking for things without any reason to do so and if anything embarrassing is found it has ammunition to pressure us to act against our will.  If we complain it will deny it ever happened for there will be no record of it.

This is serious stuff.  In part our Revolution happened because of the Excise Act of 1754 which allowed tax collectors to “interrogate any citizen under oath concerning his annual consumption of spirits.”  Some said this act exposed the “entire community . . . to . . . compulsory selfincrimination” and it was considered “the last in a line of expanding general searches, the Excise Act was the final straw for some colonists.”

To remedy this, and prevent it from ever happening again we enacted the Fourth Amendment that says,

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, . . “

How does the right of FBI Agents to examine our private records comply with this fundamental doctrine?

Ben Franklin when asked what kind of government our Founding Fathers created is supposed to have replied: “We’ve given you a Republic, if you can keep it.”   I’ve been thinking lately that they also gave us a right to be secure in our papers and effects but it looks like we weren’t able to keep that.  What’s next?