Civil rights groups launch nationwide campaign to rein in FBI surveillance under Trump

They fear COINTELPRO 2.0 is coming.

In 2013, people held signs while attending a rally to protest New York Police Department surveillance tactics near police headquarters in New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Wenig
In 2013, people held signs while attending a rally to protest New York Police Department surveillance tactics near police headquarters in New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Last week, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) made national headlines by becoming the first department to break from a Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), a longstanding partnership with the FBI that involves the collection of intelligence in the city. Now, a movement in the civil rights community wants police departments to take similar steps nationwide.

On Thursday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Asian Americans Advancing Justice, PICO and more than 10 other organizations launched the Stop Trump Intelligence Program, nicknamed TrumpIntelPro, to stop police from illegally surveilling and bullying vulnerable civilians — including Muslim-Americans, immigrants, and protesters. The coalition hopes to rein in other JTTFs before they collect intelligence on behalf of Trump and the FBI.

The TrumpIntelPro effort “will highlight model ordinances to protect civil rights, encourage local police departments to adhere to laws in their local jurisdictions rather than the FBI, direct calls into the offices of state and federal elected officials and provide concrete actions local communities can take to protect themselves from a rogue administration.”

Back to the future

The campaign is a direct response to what members believe will be a COINTELPRO-style program under the new administration. The latter was used to clandestinely obliterate black activist organizations, anti-war activists, and socialist groups in the 1970s — a mission that was achieved, in part, due to partnerships with local law enforcement agencies. Based on Trump’s executive orders in the past two weeks, TrumpIntelPro organizers anticipate that surveillance and illegal targeting of Muslims, immigrants and other racial and religious groups — with the help of local police — will escalate in the near future.

The original JTTF was created in New York City in 1980, but the partnerships now exist in 104 cities. Considered a “one-stop shop for information regarding terrorist activities,” by the FBI, JTTFs have 4,000 participating members who “chase down leads, gather evidence, make arrests, provide security for special events, conduct training, collect and share intelligence.”

As surveillance skyrocketed post-9/11, and national security agencies were given free rein to collect intelligence, the number of JTTF members quadrupled. Abuse committed by the FBI and local law enforcement agencies was widespread.

From bad to worse

“The problem will get massively worse under Donald Trump’s FBI,” John Crew, a former ACLU attorney with expertise in intelligence abuses and racial profiling, told ThinkProgress. “Unlike the stuff that’s going on now, it will not require a public announcement or new executive order. But they can do these things under existing rules.”

An advisor for the TrumpIntelPro campaign, Crew says cities, states, and local police departments need to be proactive in protecting minority communities from the FBI, which after 9/11 abandoned constitutional standards. The principles of reasonable suspicion and probable cause were no longer required to conduct an investigation.

The FBI now conducts so-called “voluntary interviews” to probe anyone it wants, asking questions about religious views, love of country, and thoughts on an administration’s foreign policy. Shortly before the election, for instance, over 100 Muslims were randomly visited and questioned by the agency.

“When you assign local police to that environment and you put them under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that says you don’t have to play by the usual rules, local policies get thrown out the window,” Crew said.

A track record of harassment

Today, there are well-documented instances of JTTF members surveilling and harassing people.

In New York City, a plainclothes NYPD officer who worked on the city’s JTTF berated an Uber driver who had flicked him off. “I don’t know where you’re coming from, where you think you’re appropriate in doing that; that’s not the way it works,” the officer asked after pulling the driver over. “How long have you been in this country?”

In Albany, the local JTTF visited the home of a journalist who had photographed a police academy’s building. An investigator allegedly asked the journalist about his interests, job, and whether or not he had ties to an extremist organization.

In San Francisco, a Pakistani-American Google employee was visited out of the blue at his office and asked a series of questions about his travels to and from Pakistan, blog entries, and associations.

A model to fight Trump

TrumpIntelPro wants to curb such abuses under Trump. Campaign organizers are specifically holding up San Francisco as a model for action.

In 2010, Crew and other attorneys discovered that SFPD officers were working as deputized FBI agents and ignoring local civil rights protections, in violation of an MOU that required the SFPD to abide by local laws.

A coalition led by Muslim Americans and civil rights organizations waged a legal battle against the city, which resulted in a 2012 ordinance that strictly prohibits the SFPD from racial and religious profiling, and requires the SFPD to uphold local civil rights protections. Long before the SFPD cut ties with the JTTF altogether, the ordinance was approved by the city’s Board of Supervisors, the SFPD, and the FBI.

TrumpIntelPro organizers want communities across the country to call police chiefs, mayors, and council members to demand similar ordinances and encourage local departments to withdraw from their respective JTTFs.

“The value of the model ordinance that we are promoting in the Stop Trump Intel Pro campaign will be stronger in places that already have strong state and local protections,” Crew said. “But there will always be great benefit in state and local jurisdictions that have weaker protections against this sort of activity, because even the weakest ones will be far stronger than the rules that the FBI operates under, and that will now be exploited to disastrous effect by Donald Trump.”

He added that most police departments have rules that say intelligence must pertain to a crime. Advocates fear the worst, but it will be difficult to track intelligence abuses in real time, Crew said.

“One of the lessons of history about trying to deal with intelligence abuses, [is that] it’s extremely rare that we hear about the worst abuses until many years, if not decades, later,” he said. “We didn’t know about the attempts to blackmail Martin Luther King and the disruption and horrible attacks on Black Panthers until decades later.”