WASHINGTON — The FBI on Tuesday vigorously defended its domestic surveillance guidelines, under fire from civil liberties and Muslim groups who argue that people not involved in crime or terrorism could be unfairly targeted for investigation. On the eve of congressional testimony by FBI Director Robert Mueller, the bureau said that its procedures are designed to ensure that FBI probes don't zero in on anyone on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or the exercise of any other constitutional right.
The FBI said its Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide equips agents with lawful and appropriate tools so the agency can transform itself into an intelligence-driven organization that investigates genuine criminal and national security threats.
Last September, the FBI disclosed an edited version of the guide as a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The manual was approved in December 2008, during the final days of the George W. Bush administration, and establishes policy that guides all the FBI's domestic operations, including counterterrorism, counterintelligence, criminal or cyber crime.
On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union asked FBI field offices in 29 states and Washington, D.C., to turn over records related to the bureau's collection of data on race and ethnicity.
According to the ACLU, the FBI's operations guide gives agents the authority to create maps of ethnic-oriented businesses, behaviors, lifestyle characteristics and cultural traditions in communities with concentrated ethnic populations.
While some racial and ethnic data collection by some agencies might be helpful in lessening discrimination, the FBI's attempt to collect and map demographic data using race-based criteria invites unconstitutional racial profiling by law enforcement, according to the ACLU.
Farhana Khera, executive director of the nonprofit group Muslim Advocates, said in an interview Tuesday the FBI has lowered the bar for sending undercover agents or informants into mosques and has enabled the gathering of data about Muslims' charitable giving practices, financial transactions and jobs.
"It's quite an invasive data collection system," Khera said. "It's based on generalized suspicion and fear on the part of law enforcement, not on individualized evidence of criminal activity."
Khera said the FBI is still keeping portions of the guide out of the public domain that deal with sending agents or informants into houses of worship and political gatherings.
The FBI has previously stated that the bureau would only go into a mosque if it had some reason to believe there was criminal activity, said Khera. If that is the standard, the FBI should have no problem actually disclosing that section of the document, Khera said.