The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday accused the FBI of profiling Muslims and other minorities and targeting them for investigation, allegations that FBI officials quickly disputed.
Unveiling a new project called “Mapping the FBI,’’ the ACLU used internal bureau documents to portray the FBI as linking criminal behavior to racial and ethnic groups and using U.S. census data to “map” those communities so they can be investigated.
The civil liberties group posted the documents on the Internet and vowed to further expose what it called unconstitutional FBI tactics.
In one document that was highlighted, a 2009 memo in the FBI’s Detroit field office sought permission to collect information on Middle East terrorist groups in Michigan, noting that: “Because Michigan has a large Middle Eastern and Muslim population, it is prime territory for attempted radicalization and recruitment by these terrorist groups.’’
But the same memo pointed out that the terrorist groups “use an extreme and violent interpretation of the Muslim faith,’’ appearing to make a distinction between extremists and other Muslims. And each document was heavily redacted, leaving unclear what agents did with any information they collected.
Taken together, the memos “confirm some of our worst fears” about FBI surveillance, Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said in a conference call with reporters. “The FBI has targeted American communities for investigation based not on suspicion of wrongdoing but on the crudest stereotypes.’’
FBI spokesman Michael P. Kortan rejected that interpretation of the documents, which the bureau turned over to the ACLU in legal proceedings. He said that the FBI opposes discrimination against minorities but that “certain terrorist and criminal groups target particular ethnic and geographic communities for victimization and/or recruitment purposes. This reality must be taken into account when determining if there are threats to the United States.”
Kortan added that mapping is widely used by law enforcement and is essential to protecting the nation from terrorist attacks.
“Just as putting push pins on a map will allow a local police chief to see clearly where the highest crime areas are, combining data that is lawfully collected into one place allows connections to be identified that might otherwise go unnoticed,” he said.
FBI officials characterized the use of census data as one factor that helps field offices identify potential threats in their regions, their top priority as the bureau continues its post-Sept. 11, 2001, transformation into an organization able to detect and dismantle terrorism plots.
The debate reflects the FBI’s ongoing challenges in balancing its fight against terrorism with respect for civil liberties.
The bureau’s tactics have long been controversial, and civil liberties groups have accused agents of overreacting to the Sept. 11 hijackings.
FBI officials say they have helped safeguard the nation from another attack.
The documents released Thursday emerged from requests filed last year with the FBI by 34 ACLU affiliates nationwide under the Freedom of Information Act. The ACLU, which is seeking to uncover evidence of racial profiling, has sued the bureau in three states, seeking to compel production of more materials.
Other documents show FBI offices collecting census data and linking it to perceived threats from groups, such as the National Black Panther Party, Chinese and Russian organized crime, and the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, street gang.
Documents from offices in Alabama, New Jersey and Georgia, for example, cite concerns that MS-13 members are committing more crimes.
Noting that members are typically from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras, the memos break down population data for local people born in those and other Latin American countries.
They also cite other material that agents say justifies investigative activity, but much of it is redacted.