ACLU demands look into FBI anti-terror ethnic mapping project

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado joined with other ACLU affiliates Wednesday in submitting a Freedom of Information Act request asking the FBI to release records on an anti-terrorism program that maps “ethnic oriented” businesses, behaviors and cultural activities. The Denver FBI office defended the mapping program by saying that terrorists are often found among particular ethnic groups.

FBI media coordinator Dave Joly compared the mapping project to police agencies tacking thumbnail photos to a map and looking for crime patters. He said placing the legally obtained data onto maps helped agents make connections in their work.

ACLU representatives said the race-based investigations raised serious questions and called for details to be aired.

“There has been virtually no public discussion of the FBI’s newly claimed authority to collect and use information about race and ethnicity to focus on particular communities,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU legal director. “With today’s FOIA request, ACLU affiliates around the country will uncover more information about a disturbing and heretofore unprecedented race-based law enforcement tactic.”

Joly defended the program.

“The sad truth is… certain terrorist and criminal groups are comprised of persons primarily from a particular ethnic community.  As we have said many times in discussing our efforts to transform the FBI into an intelligence agency, we must take that reality into account when trying to determine whether there are threats to the United States that we have not detected.”   

Michael German, ACLU policy counsel and former FBI agent, saw the program as antithetical to the American freedoms.

“Creating a profile of a neighborhood for criminal law enforcement or domestic intelligence purposes based on the ethnic makeup of the people who live there or the types of businesses they run is unfair, un-American and will certainly not help stop crime,” German said.

The ACLU argues that the FBI’s attempt to collect and map demographic data using race-based criteria invites unconstitutional racial profiling by law enforcement.

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