Charlie Savage reports that after a Somali-American teenager from Minnesota participated in a suicide bombing in 2008, the FBI basically started infiltrating Somali-American communities just as the "Bush administration was relaxing some domestic intelligence-gathering rules."
The "relaxed" rules appear to open the way for racial profiling:
One section lays out a low threshold to start investigating a person or group as a potential security threat. Another allows agents to use ethnicity or religion as a factor — as long as it is not the only one — when selecting subjects for scrutiny.
“It raises fundamental questions about whether a domestic intelligence agency can protect civil liberties if they feel they have a right to collect broad personal information about people they don’t even suspect of wrongdoing,” said Mike German, a former F.B.I. agent who now works for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Savage further reports that the portions of the manual that involve "using “ethnic/racial demographics," are actually redacted, so it's hard to know how relaxed the rules are.
Now the FBI defends doing this by using the example of the Somali extremist group Al Shabaab, and saying basically that in this case, they're looking for a group that would be located in a Somali-American community. The thing is, if the FBI is looking for signs of a Somali group in Minneapolis after a Somali-American teenager from Minneapolis participated in a suicide bombing--that's not exactly racial profiling, since it really is dependent on other factors. That isn't like stopping someone in an airport because they "look Arab," which is probably why the FBI is comfortable using it as an example.
My worry would be the FBI randomly infiltrating Muslim communities without that kind of probable cause for concern, particularly since restrictions government surveillance are so lax that the FBI is reportedly processing more information than it can handle. The government needs very little to go on before it starts collecting reams of your private information (to get a better sense of this, read the invaluable Julian Sanchez), and we're not talking about individual people here -- we're talking about the possibility that the FBI is collecting information on entire communities based on little more than race or ethnic origin, in an age where the attorney general and the president are both black. Incidentally, Eric Holder wants to leave the "relaxed" guidelines in place to "to see how well they work."
Back when the Henry Louis Gates fiasco happened, Holder shared his own experience with being racially profiled, and discussed the "work that needs to be done in communities of color where I think people too often want to assume that the police or people in law enforcement are doing the wrong thing, see police policies, law enforcement policies as, you know, misguided or directed only at people of color, when in fact, you know, that's not the case." I don't know if this is what that looks like.
The flip-side of respecting civil liberties is that the government is able to focus on those individuals who might actually pose a danger rather than vacuuming up information about everyone who crosses their path, and then wasting resources on chasing false leads.
-- A. Serwer