In Last Two Years, FBI Developed Intrusive Files on 77,100 Innocent Americans

Charlie Savage has a story reporting on the number of assessments the FBI opened in the last two years that turned into preliminary investigations. It shows that over the period, the FBI has conducted assessments of 77,100 Americans whom they determined were not a cause for concern. Their investigations of 3,315 others turned into preliminary investigations.

Data from a recent two-year period showed that the bureau opened 82,325 assessments of people and groups in search for signs of wrongdoing. Agents closed out most of the assessments, the lowest-level of F.B.I. investigation, without finding information that justified a more intensive inquiry.


The disclosure, covering March 25, 2009, to March 31, 2011, focused on assessments, which an agent may open “proactively or in response to investigative leads” and without first having a particular factual basis for suspecting a target of wrongdoing, according to the F.B.I. manual. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey issued guidelines for the bureau creating that category in 2008.

During an assessment, agents may use a limited set of techniques, including searching databases about targets, conducting surveillance of their movements and sending a confidential informant to an organization’s meetings. But to use more intrusive techniques, like secretly reading e-mail, agents must open a more traditional “preliminary” or “full” investigation. Such inquiries require agents to first have a greater reason to start scrutinizing someone: either an “information or allegation” or an “articulable factual basis” indicating possible wrongdoing.

According to the data, during the 2009-11 period agents opened 42,888 assessments of people or groups to see whether they were terrorists or spies. A database search in May 2011 showed that 41,056 of the assessments had been closed. Information gathered by agents during those assessments had led to 1,986 preliminary or full investigations.

The data also showed that agents initiated 39,437 assessments of people or groups to see whether they were engaged in ordinary crime. Of those, 36,044 had been closed, while 1,329 preliminary or full investigations had been opened based on the information gathered.

The FBI would like to spin this as good news. Some of these investigations, Valerie Caproni explains in the story, would have been full-blown preliminary investigations in the past. But, as Mike German points out, the FBI is keeping records of all these searches.

The threat assessment conducted on provides a really good example of what this means, even though it dates to an earlier period. That assessment–conducted in April 2004–fell under slightly different categories than the ones that generated these data. Nevertheless, the general guidelines (what FBI Agents could do to investigate these people) are roughly similar.

And what we saw in the threat assessment was the collection (and dissemination) of information that tied incidences of First Amendment protected activities of other people–an explosives suspect surfing the web, antiwar activists handing out literature at a peaceful protest–to criminal investigations. The result flips the notion of criminality on its head for the way other people’s potential criminal behavior gets lumped onto Antiwar’s free speech.

The threat assessment also shows what this kind of assessment means in reality. The FBI searched somewhere between 2-4 public databases for information on Eric Garris and Justin Raimondo that they don’t want even to even admit searching publicly (they’ve exempted the disclosure under investigative techniques exemption).

Finally, the threat assessment shows the kind of logic the FBI uses to advance to the next level: it found that Raimondo uses his middle name, that posted a publicly available document (the watch lists showing terrorist suspects), and that some unsavory characters like white supremacists and explosives suspects had read their work. And from that–partly because relies on donations for funding–the FBI decided it had sufficient basis to conduct a preliminary investigation into whether Garris and Raimondo are spies.

10 replies
  1. Bob Schacht says:

    Thanks, EW; it is good to keep an eye on this sort of thing.

    I also remember how Condi Rice was excoriated for failing to “connect the dots” shortly after 9/11. I think a lot of this activity you are reporting on amounts to seeing whether dots are connected. What else would we expect them to do? Your report is a very helpful examination of the “line” between legitimate dot-connecting, and our rights under the First Amendment, etc., and when that “line” has been crossed.

    Bob in AZ

  2. joberly says:

    Thanks you, EW, for your reporting on the story and for linking to the *NYT* story.

    Your analysis is excellent: “The result flips the notion of criminality on its head for the way other people’s potential criminal behavior gets lumped onto Antiwar’s free speech.”

    Contrast your clear insight to the more muddled view of the FBI analyst in 2004 in the preliminary investigation: “The rights of individuals to post information and to express personal views on the Internet should be honored and protected; however, some material that is circulated on the Internet can compromise current active FBI investigations.” (p. 69 of the FOIA release) In other words, the problem with is that its reporting interferes with FBI investigations.

  3. emptywheel says:

    @joberly: Right. And that’s an argument about prior restraint, effectively. All Raimondo did was post something that had already been posted on Cryptome. So there shouldn’t have been any question that he received a leak from someone trying to alert Pakistani terrorists. Nevertheless, to prevent the posting of watch lists from harming investigations would involve taking the watch list out of circulation (prior restraint) or, as the case here, improper investigation.

  4. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Just as a curiosity EW, have you ever inquired via FOIA whether you and your online domiciles (TNH, FDL, and now here) have been the subject of one or more of those “assessments”?

    Given the more than a smattering of national security-related postings over the years, you would appear to fit right in there with Raimondo under the government’s thin(-skinned) rationale for its 1st Amendment violations.

  5. rugger9 says:

    I wonder if it is worth the time to dig into the names on those files, specifically to see if some of our inexplicable D activity can be understood as examples of “leverage” which fits perfectly into the Rove/Cheney playbook on oppo research. Why else would Siegelman’s prosecutor (along with a whole lot of Bushie USAs) still be in office [while her replacement is being confirmed], among many other progressive disappointments.

  6. joberly says:

    @MadDog: Good question, MadDog. Also, note how the FBI in 2004 wanted to know the contributors to; that’s enough to motivate me to make a donation today to support, and for that matter, which is having a fund-raiser.

  7. rosalind says:

    @MadDog: at this point the question is probably how many databases EW and the Wheelies personal info have been dumped into. i take a small comfort imagining the agents assigned to this site: “Samizdat? What the *$#@ is a “Samizdat”?!

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The FBI’s and its government’s interest seems to be less in pursuing credible leads about probable criminal activity than it is to normalize its population of its databases and its prosecution of the normal, that is, anyone that might disagree with the government of the day.

  9. Cregan says:

    As Gene Hackamn said in Unforgiven, “Innocent of what?”


    While I am sure the FBI needs to keep files on a number of people who aren’t criminals, this sound quite overboard.

  10. rugger9 says:

    Mueller said non-actionable files were deleted [FWIW, so does the law]. I guess not, so another fib in front of Congress

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