FBI Agents Given Expanded Political Spying Powers

According to media reports and civil liberties activists, the FBI is moving to give its agents even freer rein to conduct political spying in the U.S. The powers given to the agents are in the most recent revision of the FBI’s manual, called the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide. The new guidelines allow agents more leeway to do things like comb through household trash, search databases, infiltrate organizations, and deploy surveillance squads in order to “investigate” individuals—all without a shred of evidence that any laws have been broken.

The new surveillance guidelines are an expansion on the previous revisions of the manual in 2008, shortly before Barack Obama came into office. Those changes reflected a major loosening of official restrictions that the government was forced to put on the FBI in the mid-1970s, after widespread exposure of and outrage at COINTELPRO and other spying and repression directed at a wide range of individuals and groups.

Mike German of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) explained that those 2008 changes to the FBI manual “created a new category of investigations called ‘assessments.’ And these required no factual predicate—in other words, no evidence that anybody had done anything wrong, much less the person who is under investigation. And there are a number of intrusive investigative techniques that were allowed to be used, including physical surveillance, including recruiting and tasking informants, including FBI agents acting in ruse trying to gather information from the subjects of the investigation, conducting interviews, even using grand jury subpoenas to get telephone records.” (Democracy Now!, June 14, 2011) As the ACLU noted in 2008, those new guidelines also allowed “a person’s race or ethnic background to be used as a factor in opening an investigation, a move the ACLU believes may institute racial profiling as a matter of policy.”

Obama Goes Further Than Bush

When Obama became president, he carried over the Bush-era expansion of FBI spying. And now, the FBI under Obama is going even further than they did under Bush:

  • Under the previous rules, agents had to officially open an “assessment” before they could search for information about a person in a commercial or local/state law enforcement database. Now, the agents don’t even need to start any official investigation. The New York Times notes that under the new rules, “agents will be allowed to search such databases without making a record about their decision.”
  • The previous rules specified that in order to search people’s trash or administer lie-detector tests, agents had to open a “preliminary investigation,” which, unlike “assessments,” requires agents to at least claim there is some factual basis to suspect law-breaking activity. But under the revised rules, agents can look through people’s trash and perform lie-detector tests during an “assessment.” According to ACLU’s Mike German, “When I asked [the FBI] why they would want to give agents that authority—again, before you have any evidence of wrongdoing—and they said, ‘Well, it’s often helpful to find something derogatory that could be used to pressure the person into becoming an informant.’ So, you know, this is a technique being used specifically to coerce somebody to cooperate against their neighbors or co-workers.”
  • The previous rules said that agents could use surveillance squads on targeted people only once during an “assessment.” The new manual allows agents to use such surveillance teams repeatedly.
  • The FBI has unpublicized rules relating to secret infiltration of organizations to spy on someone. According to the New York Times, “The new manual says an agent or an informant may surreptitiously attend up to five meetings of a group before those rules would apply—unless the goal is to join the group, in which case the rules apply immediately.”
  • The New York Times also reports, “The manual clarifies the definition of who qualifies for extra protection as a legitimate member of the news media in the Internet era: prominent bloggers would count, but not people who have low-profile blogs. And it will limit academic protections only to scholars who work for institutions based in the United States.”

The FBI “assessments”—which are, to reemphasize, carried out without even a pretense of any factual basis for suspecting actual breaking of laws—are not isolated occurrences. The FBI has reportedly been opening up thousands of such “assessments” each month. The vast majority of those spying actions don’t turn up any evidence of crimes, but even in those cases, the personal information collected can be retained in FBI databases.

Police State Repression Casts a Wide Net

The huge expansion of FBI powers and other repressive measures since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon casts a very wide net—targeting all kinds of individuals, groups, and movements the U.S. government considers to be in the way of their agenda. These measures are sweeping in huge sections of the population, like millions of people whose phone and email communications have been spied on by the government’s massive electronic eavesdropping program that began under Bush and has continued with Obama. The logic behind this offensive is that the government must be given the ability to snoop into and spy on every detail of people’s lives in order to produce information needed to protect their “safety.” This is a logic that leads to a police state. It is a logic and morality that winds up being complicit with endless wars, torture, assassinations, and other crimes around the world by the U.S.

Everyone needs to be fully aware of and come to grips with what the expansion of FBI powers and other repressive measures actually means for basic rights and the ability of people to express dissent and take part in political protest and resistance.

Take the case of Scott Crow, a self-described anarchist who has been arrested a dozen times in anti-corporate, animal rights, and other protests but never convicted of anything more serious than trespassing. Using the Freedom of Information Act, he recently obtained 440 pages from his FBI files. Although large sections were blacked out, the documents revealed that Crow had been labeled a “domestic terrorist” and that the FBI has been carrying out intense surveillance on him since 2001. Agents snooped on his phone calls and email; infiltrated groups he was involved in; searched through his trash; asked the IRS to monitor his tax returns; set up a video surveillance camera across from his house, and so on. This is hardly an isolated case. The New York Times wrote that Crow is “among dozens of political activists across the country known to have come under scrutiny from the FBI’s increased counterterrorism operations since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Other targets of bureau surveillance … have included antiwar activists in Pittsburgh, animal rights advocates in Virginia and liberal Roman Catholics in Nebraska.” Since these operations are being carried out in secret, there’s no way for the public to know just how many such outrageous actions the FBI has actually carried out.

The reality is that the system that exists in the U.S. is a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie—the class of exploiters and oppressors who control the economy and the state (the military, police, courts, and laws), and who sit atop a whole worldwide empire. When these capitalist rulers feel their system and their interests are seriously threatened, their state openly uses extreme violence against political opposition—as in the 1960s when soldiers fired at Black people rising up in the inner cities as well as antiwar protesters, and the FBI/police assassinated Black Panthers, among other actions. It is very heavy and serious that right now, even though there is not a situation of upsurges rocking society, the rulers are openly trampling on and rewriting what are supposed to be basic Constitutional rights—such as the ban on “unreasonable searches”—to fortify their repressive machinery.

The fact that up to now there has been no society-wide uproar against the intensifying repressive moves speaks to how far the rulers have been able to go in attacking basic rights and setting up new fascistic norms. Will they be allowed to plow ahead in this extremely dangerous direction? Or will there be increasing opposition and resistance, rising from all corners of society, determined to STOP the government’s police state moves?

Part of Major Leaps in Political Repression

The further unleashing of FBI spying is part of overall leaps in repression that began under Bush and has not only continued but is being taken to new levels under Obama. To point out just three examples:

  • This May the Congress passed, and Obama approved, an extension of the fascistic Patriot Act that began under Bush. Ron Wyden, a Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who opposed the extension, charged that the Obama administration had a “secret” interpretation of the law that expanded government surveillance even further, and warned, “Americans would be alarmed if they knew how this law was being carried out.”
  • Obama has carried out a harsh, relentless campaign against government “whistle-blowers”—officials and workers who leak to the media information about what they see as fraud and unlawful activities within the government.
  • In September 2010, the FBI carried out coordinated raids against antiwar and international solidarity activists in Minneapolis and Chicago and the Anti-War Committee office in Minneapolis. Fourteen people were served with subpoenas to appear before a federal grand jury for an ongoing investigation into “material support of terrorism.” In December, nine others were also served subpoenas for the same grand jury. All have refused to testify and face the possibility of being jailed. This campaign of harassment expanded to the West Coast on May 17, when LA County Sheriff’s SWAT team and FBI agents raided the home of Chicano activist Carlos Montes, arresting him and seizing hundreds of documents related to his long-time involvement in the Chicano movement.

There have been protests against these outrages, but much more resistance is needed and possible against the whole wave of political repression. As Revolution has said in relation to the recent FBI raids, “Revolutionaries and radicals must not only sound the alarm and join in this [resistance], but increasingly show how the interests that drive such repression are imperialist interests, and how the state that must, and does, serve those interests is illegitimate. Only in this way is there a chance to not only defeat this attack, but to begin to build a movement that will stand against an atmosphere and legal system that grows more repressive by the day.”


ACLU Condemns New Guidelines,” ACLU. October 3, 2008.

“Domestic Intelligence: New Powers, New Risks,” Emily Berman, Brennan Center for Justice, NYU School of Law, 2011.

“FBI Agents Get Leeway to Push Privacy Bounds,” Charlie Savage, New York Times, June 12, 2011.

FBI to Expand Domestic Surveillance Powers as Details Emerge of Its Spy Campaign Targeting Activists,Democracy Now! June 14, 2011.

“For Anarchist, Details of Life as F.B.I. Target,” Colin Moynihan and Scott Shane, New York Times, May 28, 2011.

Interview with Michael German, WNYC, June 13, 2011

“In the Age of Obama, Criminalizing Political Opposition to U.S. Aggression: And the Raids on FBI Activists,” Revolution, October 31, 2010. revcom.us/a/215/raids-en.html

“New Developments in Targeting of Activists: Sheriffs and FBI Raid Home of Chicago Activist in Los Angeles,” Revolution. June 12, 2011. revcom.us/a/235/raids-en.html

The Secret Sharer,” Jane Mayer, The New Yorker. May 23, 2011.

“Senators Say Patriot Act Is Being Misinterpreted,” Charlie Savage, New York Times, May 26, 2011.


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