Mimesis Law
14 November 2019

Shared Group Snitching: The FBI’s Newest Bright Idea

May 9, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — The Fourth Amendment is going through a bizarre cycle these days.  For every step forward in the name of protecting your privacy and curbing unwanted government intrusion, law enforcement and our legislature try to push us two steps back.  The latest attempt at invading your privacy is a return to the chestnut of organized group snitching.  It doesn’t help public trust the FBI took a cue from George Orwell when naming these groups “Shared Responsibility Committees.”

The program is called “Shared Responsibility Committees” and is being rolled out in an undisclosed number of cities across the United States, with the current focus on communities with large Arab- or Muslim-American populations. The SRC’s are the latest federal government policy fetish falling under the larger umbrella of “countering violent extremism” (CVE) programs. The FBI [said] in March 2016 that SRC’s are designed to identify at-risk individuals before they cross the threshold from talk to violent action. (Emphasis added.)

The easiest way to justify any government program or action is by framing it in the name of safety and security.  By focusing on communities with Arab or Muslim-American populations, the FBI invokes the dreaded specter of 9/11 so everybody else can relax, thinking the Feds won’t set up a secret spy chain in their gated community.  Adding in the proactive component, identifying those who are “at-risk” from escalating their words to violence, wraps the surveillance component in a blanket of compassion and humanity.  If you take a closer look at the FBI’s methodology in forming the SRCs, a damning, dangerous element lurks beneath the allegedly well-intentioned program.

Authorities say the point [is] to get closer to the source of alienation, and “off-ramp” young people drawn by ISIS’ or other radical propaganda, bringing them back to society with therapy and counseling before it’s too late. Social workers and therapists will…gain access to classified information, and the Shared Responsibility Committees will discuss, among other subjects, whether there is clear criminal intent or whether “alternative mitigation” that doesn’t involve a long jail term might be more appropriate.

But, of course, the effect of the program will also be to cement in place the FBI’s informant network.

A new federal “informant network,” replete with professionals that don’t understand the law, have no grasp of concepts like the actual legal definition of “criminal intent,” absent that which they might learn from television or their FBI overlords, will freely access your personal data and apply their reasoning when determining if you are a “violent extremist.” Welcome to the new normal of crowdsourced police work in combating “violent extremism.”  We hope you enjoy it.

It’s unclear whether these newly minted anti-terrorism warriors will get training in the substantive and procedural legal issues at stake during their investigations. The program and its members are veiled in secrecy, and the FBI wants it kept that way. Participation in a Shared Responsibility Committee requires signing a non-disclosure agreement, so there’s no telling whether your child’s high school guidance counselor is a federal snitch.

The FBI expects that SRC members will sign confidentiality agreements that forbid them from disclosing information regarding referred individuals outside of the SRC, unless otherwise specified (e.g., to FBI), including to other law enforcement entities, third parties, and the media, and from publishing reports that would identify or discuss specific cases or referred individuals…Given the complex set of legal and privacy issues, SRC members should not consult outside experts regarding an intervention plan on behalf of the SRC for an FBI-referred individual without written permission from the FBI.

This secrecy isn’t fostering much trust in Arab and Muslim-Americans, who view this with a critical eye.  History’s given them ample reason to view the SRCs with suspicion, so it’s no wonder Arjun Singh Sethi of the Sikh coalition doesn’t like the notion of community snitch groups.  In fact, he’s got a fairly strong opinion on the qualifications of SRC committee members.

Members of these committees have their own biases, receive little to no training and certainly aren’t equipped to ferret out violent extremism or distinguish between extremism, which is constitutionally protected, and violent extremism, which is punishable under the law. The only thing that is certain is that SRCs will serve as an extension of law enforcement and provide another set of intrusive eyes and ears… (Emphasis added.)

In a recent post at the Intercept, Edward Snowden muses on our government’s continued expansion of power through two major narratives.  The first is we must be tough on terrorism, no matter the form.  The second is our government’s decision to subvert the Constitution through acts shrouded in secrecy and presented to Americans as a means of mollifying the fear another “violent extremist” attack might happen on American soil.

Until we recognize the continued pattern as a method of giving those in law enforcement and legislative bodies more power than the framers ever intended, this cycle will continue. The Constitution must prevail over the whims of those in power, and only continued scrutiny will make that happen. Not that it isn’t way cool to be the on the FBI’s neighborhood snitch crew.

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