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The FBI, under then-director J. Edgar Hoover, put heavy surveillance on Martin Luther King Jr., (seen here with Coretta Scott King). Will a new FBI bulletin identifying "fringe conspiracy theories" lead to more undue surveillance?EXPAND
The FBI, under then-director J. Edgar Hoover, put heavy surveillance on Martin Luther King Jr., (seen here with Coretta Scott King). Will a new FBI bulletin identifying "fringe conspiracy theories" lead to more undue surveillance?
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Expert Warns of Possible Abuse of New Phoenix FBI Directive on Conspiracies

The FBI has for the first time identified fringe conspiracy theories as a domestic terrorist threat, Yahoo News reported on Thursday.

An intelligence bulletin from the bureau’s Phoenix field office, dated May 30, 2019, has labeled “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists,” as a growing threat — it's the first FBI report to ever do so. According to the unclassified report, conspiracy theory-extremism has spread with the rise of the internet and social media, and is expected to worsen in 2020 presidential election.

“I’m at least glad that the FBI has come to realize that these conspiracy theories can have the power that they do," said Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "The SPLC has been engaged in a decade-and-a-half battle for the federal government to understand that domestic terrorism and violence doesn’t just happen because you’re an Islamic extremist. This is certainly something the FBI should be paying attention to, and should not ignore."

But Michael German, a former special agent with the FBI who specialized in domestic terrorism and covert operations, has serious concerns about the paper's credibility and creating extremist categories based on ideological motivation. The danger of this Phoenix FBI report, he said, is that it targets ideas and creates avenues for monitoring them instead of targeting potential violence.

The white paper defines conspiracy theories as beliefs that “attempt to explain events or circumstances as the result of a group of actors working in secret to benefit themselves at the expense of others” and are “usually at odds with official or prevailing explanations of events.”

After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, FBI intelligence field offices like the one in Phoenix added a sweeping number of intelligence analysts. The official narrative, at the time, was that the federal government failed to prevent the terrorist attacks on 9/11 because of an intelligence problem, a lack of information (rather than an agency management issue of mishandling the information that was there, as the 9/11 Commission Report would later find). Intelligence-oriented divisions popped up in the field offices — and their success is measured by the number of reports they produce.

According to German, now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security program, that creates problems.

“Well, terrorism is a very small problem in the United States,” said German. “But if you're part of this beefed up intelligence apparatus, that doesn't relieve you of your obligation to do something every day. I think a lot of these are being produced just because intelligence analysts have to write a report — so they're manufacturing these new movements.”

German highlighted how the FBI recently came under fire for its creation of a “black identity extremist movement” category, which categorized a handful of separate events and organizations — none of which identified as “black identity” groups — as connected. The FBI's use of the term was revealed by Foreign Policy magazine in 2017.

“Similar here, you're taking these events that could easily be classified differently, either as a mental-health incident or as white-supremacist incident, and manufacturing this new category of domestic terrorist," he said.

The FBI has recently been criticized for its approach to domestic extremism. In a hearing before the Senate Judiciary committee last week, Democrats particularly highlighted the bureau's failure to focus on white-supremacist violence. As FBI Director Christopher Wray testified :“I will say that a majority of the domestic terrorism cases that we've investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white-supremacist violence."

But violence motivated by white supremacy is different from violence motivated by conspiracy theories, the focus of the new Phoenix field office bulletin.

The paper highlights five examples of domestic terrorism in the United States in which the individuals behind them attributed their actions to conspiratorial beliefs — including the man who killed 11 people at The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pennsylvania, (who had posted a Zionist Occupation Government conspiracy cartoon on social media shortly before the attack), and a QAnon conspiracy theorist who used an armored truck to block the Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge and was apprehended by the Arizona Department of Public Safety in 2018. It also lists a number of arrests, including some that previously hadn’t been publicized, related to violent incidents motivated by fringe beliefs.

But German said that’s the problem: The research in the report is anecdotal, not based on analysis of data. And it provides no directive for how to identify which conspiracy-believing people are at risk of committing acts of domestic terror.

“This kind of reporting is quite dangerous because all it does is ramp up fear, and provides no solutions for what to do about it, " he said. "The FBI analysts have access to every domestic terrorism case the FBI worked. They could actually do an analysis of the cases, and identify who are the people who are actually getting arrested that are part of these groups."

But instead, the new report justifies mass surveillance, according to German.

Since 2010, with the release of a Department of Justice inspector general report on the FBI’s investigation of "domestic advocacy groups," the federal government has authorized that FBI only needs an allegation of potential violence to have probable cause for an intrusive inspection, including the use of informants and surveillance. The agency itself can make these allegations.

Labeling narratives that are at odds with "official explanations of events” as a terrorism threat becomes particularly problematic for people who are critical of the intelligence community and the FBI, which has a long history of providing official explanations that later turned out not to be true. Examples run from denying that the federal government practiced torture on certain detainees after 9/11 to the hiding of the extent of its surveillance of U.S. citizens after the National Security Agency's President's Surveillance Program.

The FBI Phoenix field office declined to comment on the intelligence bulletin, and referred Phoenix New Times to the bureau’s national press office.

"While our standard practice is to not comment on specific intelligence products, the FBI routinely shares information with our law enforcement partners in order to assist in protecting the communities they serve," a national spokesperson for the FBI said when reached for comment.

"We would remind you that the FBI can never initiate an investigation based solely on First Amendment protected activity," they went on to say. "As with all of our investigations, the FBI can never monitor a website or a social media platform without probable cause.”

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