Thursday, October 16, 2008

FBI takes step back on civil rights

BY YOUSEF MUNAYYER • October 16, 2008

There are times when the U.S. government allows politics to interfere with policy and ends up shooting itself in the foot. Guidelines set to take effect Dec. 1 for the FBI may be a perfect example.

Issued by Attorney General Michael Mukasey's Department of Justice, the new guidelines for FBI agents will be a dangerous step back into J. Edgar Hoover's era of disregard for civil rights and civil liberties.

The guidelines permit agents to use criteria such as national origin, travel history, race or ethnic background as part of opening an investigation. Ironically, the attorney general's original guidelines in this area were established to curb such profiling, after information surfaced about the unwarranted investigation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

These new guidelines represent a danger to the Arab- and Muslim-American community in particular, but to all Americans as well. In the era in which we live, it has almost become cliché -- sadly -- to point out that an attack on one American's civil liberties is an attack on all Americans and the American ideal.

But, to all Americans, the danger of this new policy is less romantic than that. The reality is that little or no scientific evidence supports the idea that racial profiling actually works. This alone should make every American concerned about the massive inefficiencies in the use of resources by the FBI in national security, an area in which we cannot afford to misappropriate one cent.

Furthermore, the guidelines will put a strain on a relationship that, contrary to racial profiling, has been proved to lead to the arrests of terror suspects. For years, leaders of the Arab- and Muslim-American community have been working with the FBI, and other law enforcement throughout the country, to break down barriers and create trust.

For these leaders, convincing community members that federal law enforcement is trustworthy after a long history of less-than-pleasant encounters is not an easy task. From Operation Boulder, a spying operation targeting Arab Americans initiated by President Richard Nixon in 1972, to the post-9/11 response, law-abiding Arab and Muslim Americans have often been unfairly targeted by law enforcement officials.

Still, community leaders and organizations have made great strides into bridging this gap and have created the type of cooperation that stops terror. This cooperation, for example, led to the FBI's breakup of a terror cell, the Lackawana Six, in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2002, which was greatly aided by a tip from the Arab and Muslim community in the area. Or other various cooperative meetings between FBI agents and Muslim community leaders to combat radicalization at the grassroots level.

Sadly, these new guidelines will put this relationship at risk. The FBI has taken steps to reach out to community members to develop and maintain a relationship precisely because solid human intelligence is invaluable when it comes to stopping crime.

The question that remains is: Does the Department of Justice realize how much more difficult the FBI's job will become if this relationship is in jeopardy, or do they simply not care?

The new guidelines come to light at a curious time, so close to a national election that may pivot on questions of national security and patriotism.

One cannot but wonder how much of this policy-making is being motivated by politics instead of a genuine interest in national security. It's time to focus on the types of methods that put terrorists behind bars, not those geared toward putting politicians in office.

YOUSEF MUNAYYER is special assistant to the president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, and a doctoral student at the University of Maryland. Contact him at

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