The Rhode Island ACLU, in conjunction with its counterpart in Maine, today appealed the FBI’s refusal to release virtually any information that might indicate to what extent a federal program that allows for ethnic and racial mapping of local communities may be resulting in racial profiling in the two states. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed almost two years ago to learn about the controversial program, the two ACLU Affiliates received mostly blank pages from the FBI, including a censored census map of New England, leading to today’s appeal.

According to a 2008 FBI operations guide, FBI agents have the authority to collect information about and map so-called “ethnic-oriented” businesses, behaviors, lifestyle characteristics and cultural traditions in communities with concentrated ethnic populations in order to assist the FBI’s “domain awareness” and “intelligence analysis” activities. The FOIA request was designed to find out how this mapping was taking place in Rhode Island. However, the very little information disclosed raises more questions than answers.

For instance, one partially released document shows the FBI is using 2000 census data to track “foreign born” and “mixed ancestry” populations of some type in Rhode Island. It raises concerns that the FBI is profiling immigrant communities, but the FBI failed to provide any more information or indicate which populations it is tracking or why. Without this information, it is impossible to know whether the FBI is using its authority appropriately and constitutionally.

This concern is not merely speculative. FBI documents obtained from other ACLU affiliates strongly suggest that the FBI is, in fact, profiling communities for suspicionless investigations on the basis of crude stereotypes. For example, a 2009 memorandum shows that the Detroit FBI sought to collect information about Middle-Eastern and Muslim communities in Michigan without any evidence of wrongdoing. And after noting that San Francisco “is home to … one of the largest ethnic Chinese populations outside mainland China,” two FBI memoranda from that city justified the opening of an investigation involving racial and national origin mapping because “[w]ithin this community there has been organized crime for generations.”
RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown said today: “It is essential to learn how, and to what extent, the FBI has been using this troubling authority here in Rhode Island. The FBI should be tracking true threats, not targeting entire communities based on race or ethnicity. If the businesses or lifestyles of Muslim or other local communities in the state are being racially profiled, at a minimum they have a right to know about it. Unfortunately, we know as little now as we did two years ago when we filed this request. This denial of the public’s right to know is completely unacceptable.”

ACLU of Maine Executive Director Shenna Bellows added, “As our nation's leading law enforcement agency, the FBI should not be wasting resources by inappropriately mapping our communities on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion. Law enforcement programs based on evidence and facts are more effective than a system based on racial stereotypes or mass suspicion.”

The administrative appeals, filed today by both Affiliates, challenge the FBI’s response and the redaction of so much information about the program’s implementation in the state.

A sampling of some of the redacted documents is available here: