FBI Revisits J. Edgar Hoover-Style Tactics in Creation of New Terror Threat: Part One

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At a time when people of color are taking a stance, and a knee, in protest of injustices at the hands of police in America, now would not be the time for the Trump administration to declare African Americans as extremists posing a threat of premeditated violence against law enforcement officers.  This series will explore the impact of this declaration on the criminal justice system in America.

In early October a report about an FBI Counterintelligence Division intelligence assessment entitled “Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target Law Enforcement Officers” was published on foreignpolicy.com.  The report was so alarming that Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) questioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the top law enforcement official in the country, about the report during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on November 14, 2017.  To say that Sessions’ responses fell short is an understatement.

“Every intelligence product must be rooted in a strong understanding of the audience it is written for.”      Martin Peterson, former Deputy Executive Director, CIA

Before delving into the substance of this report, let’s talk a little about intelligence reports.  Most, if not all, intelligence reports are produced for a narrow, clearly defined target audience.  As such, there is usually some classification restricting distribution.  This report is classified as Law Enforcement Sensitive.  Additionally, this type of information is considered sensitive and could cause real harm to law enforcement activities.  So how this intelligence assessment made its way into the public domain raises some questions for me.  First, there is the scope of distribution which, generally speaking, requires FBI authorization.  So, did an appropriate FBI official authorize its release to Foreign Policy?  Was the report leaked?  Was either action politically motivated?

My gut says that the answer to the last question is yes.  Little happens today that is not politically motivated.  The first two questions, then are moot.   I’ve grown suspect of little things, like Jeff Sessions’ seemingly uneasy chuckle about two minutes into his testimony on the subject before the Judiciary Committee.  It was almost as if he could not contain his jubilation that Rep. Bass had taken the bait.  He seemed truly elated to have a Democrat keep what appears to be a leaked report alive and clearly into the Congressional record.  We should never forget, Sessions is a Southerner.  And Southerners love nothing more than successfully hiding their cunning tendencies.

Martin Petersen, the former Deputy Executive Director at the CIA, wrote in 2011 that “Every intelligence product must be rooted in a strong understanding of the audience it is written for.”  Applying that philosophy to domestic threat analysis, who’s the audience this FBI assessment was written for?  This is why I question the public release (translation: leaking) of this intelligence product.  Was the audience decision-makers in the Department of Justice, the media, a political adversary or simply the subjects of the assessment?

Will Local Police Follow FBI Lead

Essentially, the “intended distribution” of this intelligence assessment is vitally important.  Is the scope of distribution only to FBI field offices?  Has the FBI made distribution to other federal, state or local law enforcement agencies?   Receiving this type of intelligence from the FBI could definitely impact the assessment of potential threats by law enforcement officers who routinely come in contact with African Americans exercising lawful constitutional rights to assemble.  Yet, it remains unclear how many agencies have received the assessment through normal cooperation between FBI field offices and their state and local law enforcement partners.

Knowing the full scope of official distribution can aid in understanding the operational response that is likely to result from intelligence assessments.  Intelligence reports are largely consumed by other intelligence professionals.  As a result, it is possible that law enforcement officials actively working the street have little knowledge of the framework this report has begun to lay out.  They are simply told what the threats are.  We could see the creation of movement that actually doesn’t exist based on the assessments in this FBI report.  In the short period between completion by the FBI and the subsequent public release of the report by Foreign Policy it is unlikely that much has been done operationally.  But the foundation is laid.

We must also ask ourselves if this intelligence assessment was requested by decision-makers in the FBI or further up the chain of the Department of Justice.  If there was such a request for information that too would aid in understanding what operational response we’re likely to see.  In those cases where the assessment is the result of an actual operational request or need, the assessment could lead to immediate action by the requestor.  Such a request could also give us a peek inside the motivation for the assessment.  Essentially, an answer to this question could tell us if this assessment was rooted in a strong understanding of the intended audience.

Southern Poverty Law Center Adds Context

The federal government, however, isn’t the only author of a recent intelligence report focusing on domestic terror threats in the U. S.  Understanding non-government reports is important for a true exploration of the landscape here.  That can put this subject matter into context.  Less than a week following publication of the FBI’s intelligence assessment, the Southern Poverty Law Center released an intelligence report entitled “Return of the Violent Black Nationalist”.  There was little mention of this report independent of, or in conjunction with, media reports about the FBI assessment.  That speaks directly to the weight a report from FBI can have on the American psyche.

Although the reports from both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Federal Bureau of Investigation warn of violence targeting law enforcement, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report, in contrast, assessed very specific domestic terrorist events as a resurgence of violence by individual Black Nationalists.  That runs counter to the FBI’s grouping of several disassociated individuals under one umbrella in what seems to be an attempt to create an extremist movement.  The Southern Poverty Law Center has also published criticism of the FBI’s intelligence assessment as lacking factual basis and potentially inflating the actual threat posed by violent Black Nationalists.

Leaked or not; requested or not; read or not, this is a troubling situation.  It is possible that African Americans merely exercising constitutional rights could be unlawfully targeted as a result of this intelligence report.  More unarmed people could die unnecessarily at the hands of police as a result of increased fear.  It is also wholly possible that the FBI and other law enforcement officials may feel pressured to legitimize this report.  Once published within the agency, its contents become a reality for that very narrowly defined audience.

The next installment of this series will focus on the broad strokes of the assessment.  An examination of the language in the assessment will help to highlight the dangers of the endless possibilities that can result.