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Mike German of the ACLU

Former FBI Agent Talks Domestic Surveillance with MLaw Students

By John Masson
April 15, 2013

Before he went to work for the American Civil Liberties Union, Mike German spent 16 years working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

So when he arrived at Michigan Law recently to deliver a talk on the FBI's racial and ethnic mapping program, German knew whereof he spoke.

Changes in the American political environment after the 9/11 attacks helped lead to the program, he said during the talk, which was sponsored by the Law School's ACLU student group. The political structure had become so conducive to the idea of widespread surveillance of American citizens, he said, that the FBI was able to throw off many of its traditional constraints and investigate more or less whomever it pleased.

Seemingly modest changes promulgated by the second Bush Administration also allowed a greater intrusion into the lives of citizens, he said. For the first time, for example, FBI agents were authorized to go anywhere the public could go in pursuit of their duties. The change sounds innocuous enough, but it enabled national security-minded FBI agents to begin infiltrating mosques by co-opting programs that were originally intended to protect Muslim's civil rights and demonstrate American goodwill.

"Ten years later we find out there was quite a lot of mosque infiltration," German said.

Finally, he said, the former requirement that FBI agents have a credible reason to investigate devolved, in the post- 9/11 world, to an agent simply stating "I believe I'm investigating a national security issue."

In that environment, German said, the FBI's "Racial and Ethnic Mapping Program" was bound to raise eyebrows, especially since the FBI was, in its own words, tracking "racial and ethnic behaviors."

Before long, German said, a story in Congressional Quarterly reported that the FBI was keeping tabs on falafel sales in San Francisco in hopes of tracking the behavior of Iranians. That allegation and others seems to have been borne out by information the ACLU obtained later, in a series of Freedom of Information Act requests around the country.

"This idea about spying on entire communities has unfortunately taken root in the FBI," German said. "I knew that these types of overbroad programs would not just be bad for civil liberties, but also bad for national security."

That's because the resources the Bureau was wasting spying on law-abiding Americans were resources that thus couldn't be used to go after actual threats to the country.

"They were making assumptions based on … crass racial stereotypes about what types of crime each ethnicity commits," he said.

Worse, FBI training materials produced during that era and distributed widely to state and local law enforcement officers reinforced those stereotypes.

Ultimately, German said, the idea of reconciling what he saw going on in parts of the FBI with the Constitution every agent swears to uphold became untenable for him. The boy who grew up wanting to be an FBI agent resigned.

The FBI is a large organization, German said. He knew going in that it wasn't going to be perfect.

"But the overall approach was always toward trying to do things the right way," he said. "But there was an attitude, post 9/11, that 'The rules are off now.' "

Read more about the ACLU's take on FBI surveillance.

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