As Times Change, the FBI's Snoopy and Heavy-Handed Ways Continue

The bureau has a long history of escaping accountability for intrusive and abusive action.


The FBI is in the news a lot these days over its role in the investigation of alleged ties between Donald Trump's successful 2016 presidential campaign and the Russian government. But long before Americans debated whether the federal law enforcement agency was a righteous tribune of the people or a meddling agent of the Deep State, the FBI was something else: a nosy and unaccountable domestic enforcement agency that, by rights, should send chills down the spines of people of all political persuasions—especially since the bureau's heavy-handedness continues to this day.

The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) pulled out of a local Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) with the FBI in 2017. At the time, the move was widely portrayed as an effort to shield immigrants and the Muslim community from the Trump administration, and that certainly played a role. But internal FBI documents obtained by The Intercept show that there was more at stake.

City officers who participated in the JTTF were simultaneously subject to city ordinances and the feds' Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide (DIOG), both of which are enforceable against violators. That caused serious problems when local rules protective of civil liberties ran up against federal regulations that sought to keep a tight cap on everything in sight.

"There are requirements set forth in SFPD General Order 8.10 which govern investigations into First Amendment Activities," the FBI documents reveal. "Compliance with SFPD General Order 8.10 subjects SFPD FBI [task force officers] to possible criminal exposure for disseminating/disclosing FBI documents to include classified documents."

Police officers failing to comply with San Francisco police rules could be disciplined or fired, the document continues. But compliance with those rules could get them criminally prosecuted by the feds.

Given the number of cases the JTTF took on that invoked First Amendment concerns, participating cops were stuck in a Catch 22, having to decide which jurisdiction's rules to violate, and hoping for higher-ups to have mercy.

So, San Francisco pulled out of the JTTF, followed by Portland, Oregon, a year later, in moves largely portrayed as confrontations between sanctuary cities and a nativist administration. But, while Portland nodded toward current political conflicts over immigration in its announcement severing ties with its JTTF, it also added that "Freedom of Information Act requests filed by ACLU affiliates in 2004, 2005, and 2006 revealed that the JTTF collected information on peaceful political activity."

"If the FBI is willing to target activist groups that do nothing more than feed our houseless communities, there is no limit to what political activities they will deem worthy of excessive investigation," says the website of Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.

With regard to San Francisco's decision, "the issues raised by the white paper also precede the current president, reflecting the FBI's post-9/11 transformation into a secretive domestic intelligence agency and the challenges that creates for municipal police departments eager to cooperate with the feds but less capable of shielding themselves from local accountability by invoking 'national security' claims," according to The Intercept's Ryan Devereaux.

The conflicts extend beyond Portland and San Francisco.

"Clashes are erupting between local and federal officials over the hundreds of joint task forces that operate around the country," notes The Marshall Project, which reports on the criminal justice system:

The problem, police officials say, is that local cops assigned to joint task forces are not bound by department rules, such as wearing body cameras, which the feds have prohibited. The FBI and U.S. Marshals allow the use of deadly force if a person poses an 'imminent danger,' using a definition that is less strict than many police departments'… Task-force members are also immune to civilian lawsuits in a way that regular officers are not.

Concerns about over-the-top FBI conduct and minimal accountability sound awfully familiar to anybody with some knowledge of history.

"The FBI … has placed more emphasis on domestic dissent than on organized crime and, according to some, let its efforts against foreign spies suffer because of the amount of time spent checking up on American protest groups," the Senate's Church Committee complained in 1976. "As intelligence operations developed … rationalizations were fashioned to immunize them from the restraints of the Bill of Rights and the specific prohibitions of the criminal code."

The post-9/11 environment, as The Intercept's Devereaux suggests, seems to have breathed new life into the FBI's old ways when it comes to monitoring peaceful conduct and shielding itself from scrutiny and consequences. That's true of the task forces, but also of modern electronic surveillance.

"A federal judge secretly ruled last year that [FBI] procedures for searching for Americans' emails within a repository of intercepted messages that were gathered without a warrant violated Fourth Amendment privacy rights," The New York Times reported last month.

The judge's ruling—upheld by a three-judge appeals panel—required the FBI to distinguish between searches that sought information on Americans, and those that pertained to foreigners. He also told the FBI to document, in writing, how its search terms met the standard of being likely to return foreign intelligence information or criminal evidence—as opposed to a fishing expedition, presumably.

That would be a judge in the same Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court that approved FBI surveillance of one-time Trump aide Carter Page, infuriating the president's supporters in the process and fueling current political controversy over the bureau. Page's surveillance case might or might not have been justified, but it was just one among many.

"The idea of requiring agents to document their rationales for searching for an American's information emerged from several recent episodes in which the Justice Department reported to the court that the F.B.I. had conducted improperly sweeping searches of the repository," the Times added.

"Improperly sweeping searches" sounds an awful lot like the "excessively broad, ill-defined and open-ended investigations" the Church Committee hoped to curtail back in 1976. Despite the fond hopes of reformers of the past, the FBI continues to be intrusive and heavy-handed in its actions, and resistant to scrutiny and correction.

The political controversies of the moment will eventually pass, but they're unlikely to sweep away concerns about the FBI. If history is any guide, the bureau will still be running amok years from now.

NEXT: Elizabeth Warren Wants To Raise Taxes by $26 Trillion 

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  1. “”If the FBI is willing to target activist groups that do nothing more than feed our houseless communities”

    That’s not all those activist groups do.

    You can confirm the overbearing investigations of the FBI without blatantly lying. And yes the FBI is overbearing. But let’s stop pretending portland and San Francisco is a hotbed of victimless, peaceful activism.

    1. That’s not all those activist groups do.

      Well then I am certain that your inside knowledge and avid bootlicking for the FBI can verify what the activist groups do do related to terrorism that allows for no possible oversight by local communities.

      Here are the specific groups mentioned on the Portland website that that original quote comes from: These investigations targeted organizations like the School of the America’s Watch, Greenpeace, Catholic Workers Group, the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Colorado, and the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Justice in Pennsylvania, among others.

      1. “among others” is kinda key.

        The FBI is bad. Some of these activist groups are also bad. BOTH can be bad.

      2. School of the America’s Watch

        And how many of their members have been arrested for breaking on to Fort Benning?

        1. You do NOT want to break into Fort Benning…

    2. I want to know when the IG (Horowitz) is going to finally release the report on potential FISA abuse. WTF is the hold-up? The investigation was done back in September.

      1. Barr realized that the results of the FISA investigation would debunk Conservatives latest conspiracy theory.

        Barr needs more time to “massage” the findings so that the paid professional sociopathic liars in the Conservative media (and their allies still infesting the Corporate media) can play word games in order to not disappoint their bat sh!t bug fu@k insane whackjob base.

        1. You know this how?

  2. So sad to see how the FBI has transformed from an agency that we could look up to, and be proud of….to this. I cannot believe, as an American, that I can no longer trust the FBI to do the right thing. From mass surveillance that plainly violates our constitutional rights, to lying before the court to obtain warrants, to actually attempting to swing an election – the FBI has transformed from a law enforcement agency to being an instrument of government control.

    I will never trust an FBI agent, or their leadership again.

    1. Dont think we could have trusted the FBI for decades. I mean they moved Scully and Molder to a basement while trying to cover up aliens.

      Look who has been at the top of the FBI since the Clintons, people like Mueller. The FBI is just another politically corrupt for decades now. They feed in political entities as the various leaders and it filters downs. Now the media is paying for information left and right from agents and the DoJ declines to prosecute. It’s just corruption.

      1. Jesse, what prompted my comment was an old memory. I had a family member who joined the FBI back in the early 70’s. I attended the graduation as a child. There she was….an honest, by God FBI Agent. All of the family was SO proud. This was something that was very special, very meaningful to us. Because the FBI were the Straight Arrows of American society.

        This has now changed. And I am so saddened that our institutions that were once held up as worthy of emulation are now looked upon with horror and contempt. It is not right.

        1. I agree that people, especially us older people, still have an old respect for many of these professions. but a lot of that respect is born from a lack of information that was filtered by daily newspapers and regional newscasts. As FOIA and declassified documents come out it begins to show that the FBI never was a clean or respectable agency. Sure people in the FBI can be good, but the overall entity itself was filled with flaws.

          No entity has shown an ability to stay clean when granted power. Why we should grant as little as possible to agencies, especially those backed by the government.

          1. The saddest part of all Jesse, is listening to the cynicism of my adult children toward our federal government. I cannot contradict them, because the points they make are objectively true. The federal government is simply too big, too inefficient, and can no longer be trusted with guarding our individual liberties.

            With Barr at DOJ, I have some hopes. Time will tell if he is truly a conservative with a libertarian streak. I truly hope that libertarian streak is there. We desperately need it, after decades of statism.

            1. The bureaucrats run Washington DC and many of them are corrupt or turn a blind eye to corruption in government. Some of this is simply our government provides so many jobs that some bureaucrats dont want to rock the jobs boat.

              There should have been hundreds of whistle blowers when the NSA and CIA started up domestic surveillance without warrants. There were very few and then many of the other bureaucrats attacked those whistle blowers. That is the state of our government.

            2. “”With Barr at DOJ, I have some hopes.””


              From Wiki
              Phone surveillance program

              In 1992, Barr launched a surveillance program to gather records of innocent Americans’ international phone calls.[45] The DOJ Inspector General concluded that this program had been launched without a review of its legality.[45] According to USA Today, the program “provided a blueprint for far broader phone-data surveillance the government launched after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.”[45]

              1. He also got the FBI snipers who blew Vicki Weaver away off from all discipline. He’s a real swell fella.

                1. Just wait until his precrime unit gets rolling!

              2. Vic….is it illegal to monitor international phone calls? Let’s remember the context: It was the DEA trying to find drug traffickers.

                1. “”It was the DEA trying to find drug traffickers.””

                  They DEA was doing all kinds of questionable activities. I don’t care about their context.

                  1. Vic…not taking away from your point (Yes, I agree. The DEA does/did some very questionable things).

                    But is it illegal to monitor international phone calls?

          2. +100

    2. an agency that we could look up to, and be proud of

      LOL when the hell was this?

  3. Waiting to see Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, I think it’s due out middle of December. I like Clint as a director and from what I can tell, the movie’s a straight-up indictment of the feds and the media pushing a convenient narrative instead of doing their jobs. Or “jobs”, I suppose, now that we all know the Fake News Media is the 99% of the media that gives the rest a bad name, the Intelligence Community has an unbroken string of failures going back at least as far as the Bay of Pigs, the FBI has never caught a terrorist they didn’t first create, and the criminal justice system has been irredeemably broken for a long time. Why anybody still trusts any of the old institutions is beyond me, they all seem to be a Potemkin village run by a Wizard of Oz.

    1. I like Clint as a director…

      Me too, Jerry. He has made some incredible ‘true story’ movies.

    2. Having been around criminal law a fair amount of my life, I can tell you the cops and media work together like hand and glove. In most cases the media acts like a propaganda arm of the cops and reports whatever the cops tell them as the gospel truth. What happened to Richard Jewell is just a very public example of what happens every day in this country. The cops arrest someone for a crime and then the media reports every allegation against them as if the person has been convicted with no regard for the actual truth.

      1. The perp walk.

    3. And Eastwood probably didn’t have to change a word of what actually happened. They went after Jewell because it looked like an easy win. Meanwhile, Eric Rudolph, the fugitive serial bomber who was actually responsible, wouldn’t be caught until 7 years later.

  4. “The idea of requiring agents to document their rationales for searching for an American’s information emerged from several recent episodes”

    WTF?! Documenting search rationales is a “recent idea”?!

    1. See the last two FISA audits.

      1. Surely, *I* don’t have a “need to know”.

    1. Operations of the FBI

      A few are good police work, while some are just domestic spying, and others are just unconstitutional wastes of taxpayer money.

  5. “””If the FBI is willing to target activist groups that do nothing more than feed our houseless communities, there is no limit to what political activities they will deem worthy of excessive investigation,” says the website of Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.””

    You don’t say.


    Previously, the FBI was concerned about commies and druggies, leftists, etc., and they were the good guys then.

    The FBI is turning its attention to rising hate crimes and domestic terrorism (mostly from the right extreme), and NOW you guys complain.


    1. Who the fuck are you talking to?

    2. This is the first piece Reason has published with even the slightest hint of criticism for the FBI since Trump was elected, and even this doesn’t condemn the FBI’s rogue and illegal activities in targeting the Trump campaign.

      Don’t worry leftist ass licking fuckboi, Reason is still on your team.

  7. “But long before Americans debated whether the federal law enforcement agency was a righteous tribune of the people or a meddling agent of the Deep State”

    How dare Reason insinuate the existence of a Deep State! I’ve been assured by the smartest of the commentariat that there is no Deep State.

  8. “”As Times Change, the FBI’s Snoopy and Heavy-Handed Ways Continue””

    I have a slight issue with the statement. Replace “continues” with “expands”.

  9. So, San Francisco pulled out of the JTTF??
    ref: https://www.fastsatta.com
    satta king

  10. “As Times Change, the FBI’s Snoopy and Heavy-Handed Ways Continue.”

    Oh, thank God for that!
    For a while there I thought we were going to live in a free country.
    Shit, that was a close one!

  11. several recent episodes in which the Justice Department reported to the court that the F.B.I. had conducted improperly sweeping searches of the repository,” the Times added.

    Does this say Trump’s DOJ is dimeing out the FBI in court? Because DOJ could just release all the relevant information, fire the guilty, and desist from the practices without the need for Judicial branch involvement.

    Unless the FBI is not actually under the control of the DOJ.

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