FBI’s Seattle Somali community outreach programs targeted for spying, reports say

FBI agents

An FBI community outreach program in Seattle received orders to gather intelligence on the Somali community, according to reports released this week by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis.

Seattle was one of six cities targeted in a 2009 plan to use the FBI’s community outreach programs to gather intelligence on Somali immigrants, according to documents obtained and published by Michael Price, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. The order was rescinded in 2010.

While the Brennan Center report said the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area was identified as the program’s top priority, the Star-Tribune reported that the Minneapolis FBI officials told reporters it resisted the spy orders because the bureau’s outreach specialists did not want to jeopardize their relationships with community members.

Seattle FBI field office spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich-Williams told the Globalist that the FBI’s community outreach relationships are important to build trust.

“Unfortunately in Seattle, we’ve seen a number of incidents with bias crime,” she said, referring to several recent attacks on immigrant cab drivers. “It’s for things like that, so that people know that we have a commitment to investigate.”

She said in the al-Shabab case in Minneapolis, it was members of the Somali community who came to FBI agents to report that their family members had been radicalized.

“They came to us; we’re not suspicious of them. They want to protect their families,” she said.

The FBI has long had community outreach programs and fostered relationships with community groups, to provide mentorship and to build trust in law enforcement, according to the agency’s website.

According to the Brennan Center, after 22 young men from the Minneapolis area joined al-Shabab in Somalia in 2007 and 2009, the FBI designed the “Specialized Community Outreach Team” (SCOT) to focus on outreach to Somali immigrants as a counter-terrorism measure.

Instead of focusing on mentorship and bridge-building, like previous FBI community outreach efforts, Price writes that the main aim of SCOT was to collect information.

SCOT intentionally commingled community outreach with intelligence gathering and investigative activity. Indeed, according to the memo, one of the primary benefits of the SCOT program was the support it provided to Field Intelligence Groups (FIGs) and ‘operational programs throughout the Bureau,’ ” Price wrote.

The program description outlines plans to expand to Cincinnati; Seattle; San Diego; Washington, D.C.; and Denver, according to the document obtained by the Brennan Center.

The Seattle FBI office said it was working on a response to the specific reports late Friday. The Globalist will follow up with this story as information is received.

The program ended in December 2010, after the field offices received an order to separate community outreach efforts with field operations. The 2010 orders specifically “forbids using community outreach to conduct ‘Domain Assessments,’  prohibits (Community Outreach Program) personnel from reporting to the ‘Field Intelligence Group’ (FIG) or to an operational squad or task force, and requires segregation of community outreach files,” according to Price of the Brennan Center.

However, Price questioned continued uses of FBI community outreach, including a 2012 incident in Seattle when FBI agents came unannounced to the home of an immigrant and questioned her about calls to her family in Afghanistan. When she and her daughter asked why the agents were there, the agents reportedly cited “community outreach,” according to a letter to FBI from CAIR-WA.

Price wrote:

Genuine efforts at community outreach are praiseworthy and have the potential to strengthen our national security. The FBI took a step in the right direction by establishing rules to keep outreach and intelligence separate. But even the best of intentions will not have an impact if the FBI does not follow its own rules or seeks to sidestep them.

And despite the denial that any spying went on in the Minnesota programs, Minneapolis Public Radio reported that news released this week about the intelligence-gathering program have made some Muslims wary of new FBI community outreach efforts in the Twin Cities.

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