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Former FBI Agent Turned ACLU Attorney: Feds Routinely Spy on Citizens

Domestic spying on citizens is done by too many federal agencies, targeting people based on religion and political activity.

Too often, we've seen U.S. Intelligence agencies whose actions are cloaked in secrecy until someone uncovers governmental abuse that places innocent people under surveillance or on watchlists. It's truly scary to ponder how much more stays hidden. I'd love to interview an FBI agent with in-depth national security and intelligence experience, but one who would answer truthfully and believes in privacy. It is with delight that I interviewed Mike German, formerly a 16-year veteran as an FBI special agent who became ACLU's Policy Counsel on National Security, Immigration and Privacy.

What was the final straw that led you to quit the FBI and start at the ACLU?

German: I left the FBI when the DOJ Inspector General failed to investigate an FBI cover-up of a failed FBI counterterrorism investigation I reported, or protect me from official retaliation that resulted. I reported the information to Sen. Grassley and resigned. Grassley put pressure on the IG, so almost two years later the IG issued a report that showed the FBI falsified and backdated records about the case and retaliated against me for reporting it. I joined the ACLU two years later because I knew from my counterterrorism work that protecting civil liberties and keeping law enforcement accountable is what keeps America safe from terrorism and other crime.

Are you followed, tracked or otherwise under scrutiny from any U.S. intelligence agency for the work you have done in revealing what is really happening in America?

German: I don't know. Much of my work is public, so it's not hard to find out what I'm doing. But one of the problems is that intelligence surveillance is conducted in such secrecy that it's virtually impossible to know whether illegal surveillance is taking place.

What is the most disturbing fact(s) that you have uncovered?

German: The most disturbing thing we've uncovered is the scope of domestic intelligence activities taking place today. Domestic spying is now being done by a host of federal agencies (FBI, DOD, DHS, DNI) as well as state and local law enforcement and even private companies. Too often this spying targets political activity and religious practices. We've documented intelligence activities targeting or obstructing First Amendment-protected activity in 33 states and DC.

What do you see as the biggest threat to U.S. citizens' rights that is happening in our country?

German: The biggest threat is that the increase surveillance of political activity will create a chilling effect that will dissuade people from exercising their rights, which will cause significant harm to participatory democracy.

Do you believe the War on Terror will continue to be an excuse to violate the rights of American citizens?

German: Unfortunately, yes.

Is there a clear-cut list of what places people on watchlists or makes them suspicious?

German: No. The FBI claims it needs only a reasonable suspicion to place people on watchlists, but there's significant evidence (including IG reports) documenting that people are improperly placed on watchlists for improper reasons.

Can people get off of a watchlist?

German: The FBI won't even confirm if you are on a watchlist. Many times when we bring suits challenging a person's suspected placement on a watchlist, it results in the travel problems being resolved, without explanation.

Are they specific keywords that are considered hot and not wise to include in email or chats without triggering scrutiny?

German: Not that I know of.

Your thoughts on TSA "enhanced pat-downs" and body scanners?

German: They are unreasonable invasions of privacy that do not enhance security.

Do you believe fusion centers keep data permanently on people?

German: Federal regulations require purging data in criminal intelligence systems every 5 years unless it is re-validated. The problem is the FBI is now collecting SAR reports from fusion centers, and it keeps this info indefinitely.

[Note: Fusion centers are where intelligence agencies collect information to fight terrorism, but many innocent people have ended up on watchlists. The SAR (suspicious activity reports) nationwide database is supposed to "connect the dots" in order to find terrorists.]

Do you believe "See Something, Say Something" can have potential benefits or land more innocent people on watchlists?

German: Yes, it suggests innocuous and ubiquitous activities like taking photos or videos, taking notes, taking measurements, raising money for charity and espousing extreme beliefs were inherently suspicious and related to terrorism. All of us engage in these behaviors and are vulnerable to erroneous reporting that creates a false suspicion of dangerousness.

[Note: "If You See Something, Say Something" program asks untrained people to report any suspicious activity which then can go into the SAR database.]

Do you believe U.S. intelligence agencies are in a position to investigate the influx of more suspicious reports in the SAR database, those that coming in by people reporting suspicious activity?

German: No, the problem has long been that too much information is collected by these agencies, and they can't possibly manage it all, so critical information isn't addressed in a timely manner.

Is there anything that journalist, bloggers, people on the Internet could do that might ease up on law enforcement's increasing desire to monitor America?

German: Report the costs of all this surveillance and point out that there's no evidence any of it actually make us safer. We've sacrificed our privacy for no security benefit.

Stay tuned for the next post where I'll take Mike German up on his suggestion to report the costs of domestic spying on Americans.

Image credit: Joe Mabel

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