In the wake of continuing white supremacist violence, including the shooting at El Paso, Texas, some politicians, law enforcement associations, and figures in the media are talking about creating a new domestic terrorism law. Such demands are routed in the claim that the FBI needs more powers in order to counter white nationalist violence.
Defending Rights & Dissent Policy & Legislative Counsel (and journalist!) Chip Gibbons penned an article for In These Times “Expanding the Powers of the FBI Is Not the Solution to White Supremacist Violence.” It was later republished by Jacobin under the title “Never Trust the FBI.”
Gibbons counters arguments for expanded FBI authority with a two pronged approach. First, he debunks claims about there not being laws covering domestic terrorism and showing how it is emprically false to say the FBI is short on investigatory powers. Second, Gibbons points out how the FBI uses its domestic terrorism powers to target dissent. Given the FBI’s institutional racism, these powers are frequently brought down on civil rights and racial justice movements.
Here’s how Gibbons explains the FBI’s current powers:
The current [FBI] guidelines create two overarching types of FBI investigations of individuals: predicated investigations and assessments. While predicated investigations require having a factual reason to think the subject has some nexus to criminal activity or a national security threat, an assessment requires no such justification. Thanks to the Mukasey guidelines, the FBI can investigate people without any evidence of a crime.
In addition to the current loose standards for opening an investigation in general, the FBI’s own domestic terrorism investigations show how easily the agency manipulates the term, in stark contrast to those who say the FBI lacks enough authority. Using its domestic terrorism authorities, the FBI has surveilled both Occupy Wall Street and the School of Americas Watch, even though it acknowledged both groups were nonviolent or had peaceful intentions. The FBI reasoned that a future, hypothetical “lone offender” or “militant group” could infiltrate the movements to carry out unspecified threats. The FBI’s domestic terrorism investigation of School of the Americas Watch carried on for 10 years. A 2010 Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report looked at FBI monitoring of domestic advocacy groups from 2001 to 2006, including PETA, Greenpeace and the Catholic Worker movement.
One of the terrorism investigations reviewed involved a 2003 incident where an alleged member of the Catholic Worker movement smashed a glass window and threw red paint at a military recruitment station. An email claiming responsibility stated the act was carried out “on behalf of the people of Iraq who suffered under Saddam Hussein and now suffer under the United States.” The OIG decided that since the act involved a “use of force or violence” (throwing red paint and smashing window) to achieve a political goal it, was—under FBI policy—proper to investigate it as domestic terrorism.
Gibbons also points out how when civil rights protesters with the group By Any Means Necessary were stabbed by white supremacists the FBI responded by investigating the victims as domestic terrorists. The FBI has recently sought to criminalize black dissent with its Black Identity Extremism intelligence assessment, which argues African-American opposition to police racism and police brutality is likely to lead to violence against law enforcement.
After writing this piece, Gibbons made a number of media appearances to talk about it. On August 12, 2019, Gibbons on appeared on Rising Up With Sonali, which broadcasts on Free Speech TV and radio stations across the country. It can be viewed online here. Gibbons then joined on August 13, 2019 Upfront on KPFA in Berkley, California. On August 14, 2019 Gibbons appeared on Equal Rights & Justice on WBAI in New York City. He also discussed his piece on his regular segment on The District Sentinel, Chip-Chat.