The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday accused the FBI of targeting racial, ethnic and religious groups for investigation by associating criminal behaviors to specific communities.
Basing its charges on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU said FBI analysts across the country linked criminal behaviors with certain racial and ethnic groups and then used U.S. census data and other demographic information to map where those communities are located in order to launch investigations.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, the ACLU said it has "grave concerns about the overbroad investigative authorities" claimed by the FBI in its domestic surveillance operations, and cited growing evidence "that the FBI is illegally and unconstitutionally targeting innocent Americans for investigation based upon their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, and political activities protected under the First Amendment."
The group urged Holder to put an immediate end to what it called "unconstitutional practices."
As part of its "Mapping the FBI" initiative to expose misconduct and abuse of authority, the ACLU said the bureau:
-- Noted an increase in the "black/African American populations in Georgia" and non-violent protests by the African-American community in the state after police shootings to identify potential threats from "Black Separatist" groups.
-- Used the fact that San Francisco is "home to one of the oldest Chinatowns in North America and one of the largest ethnic Chinese populations outside mainland China" to justify opening an investigation involving racial and ethnic mapping because within the community "there has been organized crime for generations."
--Used the threat posed by the criminal gang MS-13, originally started by Salvadoran immigrants, to justify broad investigations targeting Latino communities in Alabama, New Jersey and Georgia.
--Sought to collect information about Muslim and Arab communities in Michigan "because Michigan has a large Middle Eastern and Muslim population, [so] it is prime territory for attempted radicalization and recruitment by ... terrorist groups."
The documents also uncovered FBI counterterrorism training materials used since 2003 that the ACLU said portrayed Arab and Muslim communities in the U.S. as "primitive, violent and supporters of terrorism."
"The use of profiling as a tool to address crime and national security threats is not only unconstitutional, it is ineffective and counterproductive," said Michael German, ACLU senior policy counsel and a former FBI agent. "Targeting entire communities for investigation based on erroneous stereotypes produces flawed intelligence. Experience shows that terrorists and criminals do not fit into neat racial or religious stereotypes -- law enforcement programs based on evidence and facts are effective, and a system of bias and mass suspicion is not."
The ACLU charged the FBI with exploiting a "loophole" in the Justice Department's 2003 "Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies" that prohibited racial and ethnic profiling in all contexts except in national security and border integrity investigations.
The FBI and the Department of Justice did not immediately reply to requests for comment.