In 2006, Craig Monteilh converted to Islam and was embraced by the Muslim community in Orange County, California. Little did they know, he was secretly working as an informant for the FBI, surveilling Arab Americans in their congregation, businesses, and homes. This was part of a larger campaign by the FBI, which targeted Muslim Americans after 9/11, often without sufficient evidence and in violation of privacy laws. Congress has since condemned Homeland Security’s spying on minority groups, and political persecution is often considered a distant memory. This couldn’t be further from the truth; government surveillance of marginalized communities and activists continues to this day.
Under the guise of national security, the FBI has a long history of spying on civil rights leaders and black, brown, LGBTQIA+, and left-leaning activists. Throughout the 20th century, government protocol classified any support for socialism, black liberation, or gay rights as emphatically un-American and a threat to “the natural order of society.” The FBI’s COINTELPRO program persecuted leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Seale until public outcry led it its discontinuation in the 1980s. While the program’s infamous director, J. Edgar Hoover, was largely held responsible for its racist policies, newly declassified records indicate that President Johnson — often heralded as a civil rights champion- also played a critical role in the surveillance of black political leaders.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the Patriot Act granted the U.S executive branch expansive powers to monitor suspected “insurgents,” including the ability to enter private residences without notice, track communications with foreign correspondents, and access identity-based data. The executive branch’s own accountability board found that the vast majority of data collected through the Patriot Act produced “little unique value,” and justified intense prejudice against immigrant communities.” Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency whistleblower, publicized the extent of government surveillance in 2013, prompting Congress to introduce marginal reforms to government surveillance policy. Nevertheless, they have yet to account for growing technological surveillance capabilities often employed by law enforcement, such as facial recognition software, which has led to countless false arrests of people of color.
In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a petition to read what the Department of Justice (DOJ) had gathered on the Black Matters Movement, revealing the FBI’s creation of a category called “Black Identity Extremists.” Nusrat Choudhury, the Deputy Director of the ACLU Racial Justice Program, argues that such distinction gave the FBI the broad authority to surveil black leaders who participate in boycotts, protests, and rallies. He goes on to say that “these documents suggest that since at least 2016, the FBI was engaged in a national intelligence collection effort to manufacture a so-called ‘Black Identity Extremist’ threat.”
The Memphis Police Department surveilled prominent Black journalist Wendi C. Thomas for years, solely because of her past membership in a Harvard grassroots coalition. She still can’t access the DOJ records on the investigation, and has been blacklisted from every public office/political media outlet in Memphis.
More alarming, Black Identity Extremism was often prioritized over cases of white nationalism, with police officers being more likely to be sympathetic to white terrorist threats. In 2019, the FBI rephrased the category to “racially motivated extremism” lumping white nationalist terrorist groups — the largest threat to American national security today — in with left-wing groups that have rarely committed violence against state institutions. Civil rights leaders have criticized this change, as political speech is given a false equivalency to white supremacist terrorism.
Political violence in the United States has surged in the last 5 years. The FBI should be directing their efforts to addressing this terrorism, but not at the expense of civil liberties. It should be adequately targeted at violent actors, not disproportionately focused on black and brown communities, who are statistically less likely to be threats. Congress must authorize a full independent investigation into the Patriot Act’s unchecked power and limit what executive agencies can do without legislative consent. Furthermore, most of our information on surveillance comes from filing Freedom of Information Acts. It’s time for a new accountability model that empowers the public to scrutinize national security programs without resorting to lawsuits, as the European Union has done. The stakes are high. Young black and brown Americans are taking to the streets to protest injustice at an increasing rate, but they do so at great personal risk. We must hold our law enforcement agencies accountable and fight the real threats to our democracy — white nationalism — not manufactured dangers from the political left.
Zara Thalji is from Chantilly, VA and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.