There were four gun control proposals up for a vote in recent attempts to enact some form of gun control legislation following the mass shooting in Orlando. Two were focused on some kind of expansion of background checks, either the checks currently in place or expanding beyond what is currently in place. The other two amendments focused on using the FBI Terror Watch Lists and restricting or eliminating people on those lists from being able to purchase guns. All four proposed bills failed to pass.
It has been known for a long time that the various FBI terror watch lists are flawed. The ACLU came out with a statement this week, around the same time the Democrats were having their famous “sit in” on the house floor. The ACLU estimates that approximately over a million people may be on these various terror watch lists, a few thousand of which are Americans citizens. Information given in the ACLU report is based on an audit conducted by the US Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General in September 2007 and updated in May 2009. These terror watch lists, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), the No-Fly list, and the Selectee list, are very easy to get on. If an innocent person does go through the procedure to get their name off, there’s no way to verify whether or not that person’s name has actually been removed because that information will not be disclosed “due to national security.” The secrecy and the lax standards used to obtain information are troubling.
There has been extensive criticism, also, of how the FBI have used these terror watch lists to use surveillance on Muslim communities, and also specifically, to target vulnerable individuals in these communities. Human Rights Watch, in coordination with Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, released the results of a study in 2014 in an article titled “Illusion of Justice,” highlighting FBI tactics focused on “preventative sting operations.” After 9/11, the FBI and other government agencies were granted sweeping new powers to conduct “pre-investigation assessments.” Powers to authorize the gathering of information – even when the person being investigated is not suspected of any criminal activity – for unlimited periods of time.
This becomes even more troubling when governmental agencies are also given the blanket authority to perform more invasive investigating techniques. Techniques include attending religious and political services to watch entire communities, tracking an individual’s movements without any reasonable suspicion that that individual might be breaking the law, and the use of paid informants. The use of paid informants in these cases obscures the issue further, in that informants often have a criminal history and a financial incentive to not only participate in these cases but actively work to obtain a conviction.
In some cases, the issue does not seem to be whether these preventative sting operations uncover terrorist activities as much as they might have helped create and facilitate it. People with mental illness and mental disabilities were targeted for manipulation, sometimes coercion. Poor people in desperate financial situations were often offered exorbitant amounts of money to enact terrorist plots. Not by outside foreign entities, but by undercover FBI investigators and paid informants.
Today’s terrorism sting operations reflect a significant departure from past practice. When the FBI undercover agent or informant is the only purported link to a real terrorist group, supplies the motive, designs the plot and provides all the weapons, one has to question whether they are combatting terrorism or creating it. Aggrandizing the terrorist threat with these theatrical productions only spreads public fear and divides communities, which doesn’t make anyone safer.
– Former FBI agent Michael German in the Human Rights Watch study.
In the next part of this article, we are going to discuss the people that have been arrested and the dizzying variety of techniques used to get evidence for a conviction.
Salam Morcos contributed to this article.