LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A newly disclosed trove of “suspicious activity reports” filed by police under a federal domestic intelligence network shows a program rife with ethnic profiling and useless tips that subject innocent Americans to counterterrorism scrutiny, a civil liberties group said on Thursday.
The suspicious activity reports, or SARs, and the dozens of state and regional surveillance-collection hubs, called fusion centers, where those reports are submitted and analyzed, was established by Congress in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on America.
The idea was to foster greater vigilance, cooperation and sharing of information among all levels of law enforcement to guard against future attacks. Even the public was encouraged to help with such slogans as “If you see something, say something.”
But hundreds of report summaries obtained under a public records request from two fusion centers in California reveal rampant privacy violations based on racial and religious bias, the American Civil Liberties Union said.
Many of the reports relate otherwise innocuous, even constitutionally protected, activity that seemed to have aroused suspicious by local law enforcement officers because the subjects appeared to be of Middle Eastern origin, the ACLU said.
One summary, for example, is titled: “Suspicious ME (Middle Eastern) Males Buy Several Large Pallets of Water.”
In a separate report, a police sergeant from Elk Grove, California, near Sacramento, is described as having “long been concerned about a residence in his neighborhood occupied by a Middle Eastern male adult physician who is very unfriendly.”
A large number of the summaries relate to individuals spotted taking photographs of public buildings or landmarks.
In one such report, “a Sacramento County Sheriff’s Deputy contacted three adult Asian males who were taking photos of Folsom Dam. They were evasive when the deputy asked them for identification and said their passports were in their vehicle.”
“What’s driving the suspicion is not the photography, but bias against the person taking the picture, which generates the report,” said ACLU senior policy counsel Michael German, a former FBI agent.
Political protests also were reported at times.
One summary recounts that the “reporting party received an email that describes a scheduled protest by an unknown number of individuals ... The information indicates that the protesters are concerned about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers.”
The subjects’ names and other identifying information, which were redacted from the records obtained by the ACLU, are reviewed by fusion center personnel and, in some cases, transmitted on to various law enforcement databases for further scrutiny, German said.
Aside from being reported to the government, individuals singled out were often visited by FBI agents, he said.
“This program is collecting information based on racial and ethnic background and First Amendment-protected activity,” German said. “It triggers investigative activities that are not just a waste of time, but further complicate that person’s life who is just minding their business in the first place.”
Officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversee the program, were not immediately available for comment on the ACLU’s disclosure of the documents.
German acknowledged that some reports document obvious criminal activity. He cited one in which California Highway Patrol officers responded to report of explosives found in the front yard of a home near Bakersfield, California.
But he questioned why such wrongdoing, which would normally be reported to law enforcement for investigation as a crime, should also be shared with the FBI as counterterrorism intelligence.
The ACLU pointed to a U.S. Senate subcommittee report last year that was highly critical of the fusion center program.
That report said the program “often produced irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence reporting to DHS” and that none of its reporting could be found to have ever uncovered a terrorism threat or to have disrupted an active terrorism plot.
“Most reporting was not about terrorists or possible terrorist plots, but about criminal activity, largely arrest reports pertaining to drug, cash or human smuggling,” the Senate panel concluded.
Editing by Stacey Joyce