The Watchful and the Wary

From FBI and CIA headquarters to small-town police departments, the government is building a massive intelligence network designed to spy on terrorists — and on everyday Americans.

Illustration: Guy Billot

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If the Federal Bureau of Investigation is spending a lot of money tracking terrorists, not much of it is being squandered on frills, judging from the looks of the FBI’s ramshackle field office in the federal building high above Chicago’s Loop. Workstations in the sprawling suite occupied by the FBIÕs Joint Terrorism Task Force are shoved together chockablock, and the place looks, well, lived in. files are strewn over battered desks, where rows of agents sit gazing at computer screens and talking quietly on the phone. “We call it the trailer park, because it’s such a mess,” says John Raucci, a 16-year FBI veteran who runs the task force.

But the modest appearance is deceiving. Though seemingly cobbled together, the task force is the business end of an ambitious anti-terrorist and domestic spying apparatus that is rapidly being assembled by the federal government. It’s a system that seeks to merge the powers of domestic law enforcement, including the FBI, with those of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon, and the Department of Homeland Security. Originally envisioned to catch Al Qaeda-style terrorists, it has been given the authority to vacuum up vast amounts of information and to analyze and file intelligence on individuals and organizations, including political and religious groups and citizens not suspected of any crime.

Authorities can now more easily gain access to phone and email logs, travel information, credit files, library records, and reams of other personal data. Using new law-enforcement powers created by the 2001 Patriot Act and an order by Attorney General John Ashcroft easing restrictions on FBI investigations, they can find out which websites people visit and which classes they’re taking, infiltrate political meetings and worship services, tap phone lines, monitor postings in online chat rooms, even secretly search homes and businesses. Since 9/11, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of surveillance warrants — which allow government agencies to spy on individuals and organizations without judicial review — as well as far-reaching subpoenas that require businesses to disclose information about their customers. And the government is working to combine information on individuals that is now scattered in countless public and private computer files into one huge database that could be used to look for patterns in people’s financial or travel habits.

Most of these efforts are taking place in secret, making it nearly impossible to find out exactly how extensively the new intelligence-gathering network is being used. But a few specifics have emerged. At the University of Massachusetts, for example, the FBI, working with a campus police officer recruited to the local terrorism task force, questioned faculty and students about their political views; nationwide, the bureau now has broad access to student records. Some public libraries have begun destroying their records after being contacted by the FBI about the reading habits of patrons. According to one University of Illinois survey, 550 libraries report having received such requests; the FBI says that its agents have contacted no more than 50 libraries. And last year, the owners of a Beverly Hills dive shop went public about an FBI effort to collect the names of everyone who had ever taken scuba lessons at diving schools or YMCA pools.

The intelligence network is growing fast. “We’ve doubled, even tripled here since 9/11,” says Raucci, whose Chicago terrorism task force — one of 66 around the nation — consists of 125 FBI officers as well as representatives of the CIA and the Internal Revenue Service; postal, customs, and immigration inspectors; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and firearms; and city, county, and state police. Of the task force’s five squads, two are dedicated to investigating Al Qaeda and other Islamist networks, while another exclusively targets domestic groups — “Posse Comitatus, the Aryan Nation, the Church of the Creator, and extremists like the animal-liberation groups,” says Raucci; in addition, the FBI is providing intelligence training for thousands of officers at 200 police departments in the Chicago suburbs. The CIA has won new authority to engage in domestic spying, something it was long prohibited from doing; new domestic intelligence departments have been created at the Pentagon’s Northern Command and the Department of Homeland Security, and key lawmakers are debating the creation of a massive “National Intelligence Agency” along the lines of Britain’s MI5.

Together, the Bush administration’s measures are unraveling the web of safeguards placed on law enforcement in the 1970s, after it was revealed that the FBI, the CIA, and the U.S. Army had conducted covert operations against campus radicals, anti-war groups, and civil rights organizations. And, critics warn, they stand to make government surveillance of citizens — once considered a temporary, post-September 11 phenomenon — a permanent, routine aspect of law enforcement. “A combination of lightning-fast technological innovations and the erosion of privacy protections,” warned an American Civil Liberties Union report in January, “threatens to transform Big Brother from an oft-cited but remote threat into a very real part of American life.”

In the streets of Chicago, the power of the new intelligence apparatus is already being felt — and not by terrorists. “Everything has changed since 9/11,” says Emile Schepers, a longtime local activist and head of the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights.

Schepers looks like a protester out of central casting. On a blustery cold and snowy day in early April, his bulky frame is sheathed in a tattered raincoat and he’s unshaven, with a shaggy mustache and long, unkempt hair. “Last month,” he says, “we organized a large anti-war demonstration, at which a police photographer came up to me and, right in my face, snapped a picture.”

At the protest, police made more than 800 arrests. “What suggests heightened intelligence and surveillance,” Schepers says, “is that the police went into the crowd and selected activists and leaders, and arrested them.”

Until recently, the Chicago Police Department was prohibited from photographing or videotaping political demonstrations. But in 2001, in a move that cleared the way for closer cooperation between police and the FBI, the department won a decades-long effort to rid itself of a court-imposed consent decree that had restricted its ability to spy on political and religious groups. The prohibition dated back to 1982, when a court forced Chicago to abandon its political spying unit, the heir to the old Red Squad that had harassed left-wing, civil rights, and anti-war activists from the 1950s to the ‘70s. Now, Chicago police are free to amass files on organizations, keep track of their members, infiltrate meetings, and record demonstrations, all on nothing more than the suspicion that a group might be inclined toward violence.

Larry Rosenthal, an attorney for the city of Chicago, insists that police will respect Chicagoans’ first Amendment rights. Officers, he says, are still prohibited from “intelligence gathering not motivated by a law-enforcement purpose or which is intended to punish, harass, or retaliate.” But he pointedly notes that under the new rules the police can keep track of organizations like act up, the militant aids group, or anti-abortion activists. “Take a mainline anti-abortion group with fringe members who plant bombs,” he says. “If a bomb goes off, at least you know who the members are, because they’re in an intelligence database.” Rosenthal says the Chicago police hope to integrate their criminal and intelligence databases more closely with those of the FBI and police departments in other cities, meaning that information collected anywhere in the United States will be instantly accessible to a long list of federal and local agencies. “Take the case of a demonstration against the World Trade Organization,” he says. “The responsible thing to do is to find out if any of the people coming [to Chicago] caused trouble in other cities.”

It won’t just be unruly demonstrators, however, who end up in intelligence files. Police around the nation, from large cities to small towns, are being trained in how to gather intelligence on everyday activity in their communities. In Joliet (population 106,221), 35 miles southwest of Chicago, officers have been through more than 4,000 hours of anti-terrorism training with the FBI since 9/11, says Fred Hayes, the city’s deputy chief of police. Joliet’s intelligence unit has also set up a liaison to the police intelligence division in New York City, which is led by a former CIA chief of covert operations.

Bill Fitzgerald, a former Joliet police chief, runs the Institute for Public Safety Partnerships, a branch of the Justice Department that conducts training for local police. Under the new system, Fitzgerald explains, someone in Joliet might report a neighbor to the police for suspicious behavior. A police officer may then visit the person, fill out a “field interview card,” and pass it to the intelligence officer in his department who would send it to the FBI task force. The process could begin with something as innocuous as a jittery citizen reporting a man in a turban loading boxes into a car — the kind of tip that, in fact, led to the arrests of numerous Arabs and Muslims in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. If that man is seen a week later at, say, a protest in Des Moines, police could access the FBI’s database and call up the Joliet report. “At least they tell us it’s supposed to work that way,” says Fitzgerald.

Which is exactly what worries Harvey Grossman, legal director for the ACLU of Illinois. Slight and soft-spoken, the graying civil libertarian sits in his cluttered office in the warrenlike ACLU headquarters, poring over legal papers. “If you’re involved in a street demonstration, you don’t have any expectation that you are going to be part of a government file,” he says. Even the mere threat of such a file, he notes, can put a chill on political dissent: Government workers, people who might want security clearances or whose background might be investigated for a future job, or people who simply want to remain anonymous while participating in protests all have reason to fear the inclusion of their name in a police file, especially since such files are increasingly being shared among government agencies.

The ACLU is especially concerned about the FBI and police gathering information on the political views of people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing. After the 1991 Gulf War, the FBI interviewed Arab American leaders about terrorism and, in the process, asked their views about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, about Middle East politics, and about a Palestinian homeland. In the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU, a judge later ordered the records destroyed. Now, worries Grossman, the FBI may be using its new powers to compile similar dossiers on countless Americans — and, given the intense secrecy that surrounds the war on terrorism, it will be a lot harder to uncover them.

Already, there are indications that police in some cities have sought to collect information on individuals’ political beliefs. In New York this past February, police intelligence officers interrogated anti-war pro- testers about their political affiliations and past protest activities, then entered the information into a database. Under pressure from the ACLU, the program was halted — as was a more extensive spying program, begun in the late 1990s by the Denver Police Department, in which police amassed files on 3,200 individuals and 208 organizations, including Amnesty International and the American Friends Service Committee, many of which were characterized as “criminal extremist.”

Under a Justice Department training curriculum, police are taught to pay attention to citizens’ political affiliations and to look out for “enemies in our own backyard.” Police are directed to collect information on the “structure, philosophy, number of members, [and] locations” of groups including “the Green Movement,” which is defined as “environmental activism that is aimed at political and social reform with the explicit attempt to develop environmentally friendly policy, law, and behavior.”

David Carter, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University who developed the Justice Department curriculum, says it’s important for police to investigate even groups that so far have not engaged in any violent acts. Violence or terrorism could emerge from a wide range of movements, he says, including “the groups involved in the [World Economic Forum] protests in New York, or the World Trade Organization protesters,” along with other “social-extremist groups,” black separatists, and militias. “In the 1950s we said we were after communist sympathizers,” Carter explains. “Now, we say terrorist sympathizers.” For the FBI, putting together a national intelligence network is more than a new mandate: It’s the bureau’s chance to redeem itself after being widely castigated for missing clues in advance of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Leading members of Congress, think tanks, and government commissions have called for the establishment of a national intelligence agency to take over the bureau’s anti-terrorism efforts; President Bush’s national security team has discussed that option, but so far has not made a decision. “We’re either going to create a working, effective, substantial domestic intelligence unit in the FBI or create a new agency,” says Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who until recently chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In response to such pressure, the FBI is scrambling to beef up its intelligence division. “We’ve shifted intelligence analysts from the criminal side,” says Raucci, of the Chicago Joint Terrorism Task Force. “The lion’s share work on the terrorism side now, and we are making strides to recruit more trained intelligence people, including from the military services.” At headquarters in Washington, FBI Director Robert Mueller has established a “super squad” of terrorism specialists, opened a new Office of Intelligence, and asked Congress for a dramatic budget increase — a total of $4.6 billion for next year, nearly 50 percent more than the $3.1 billion the FBI spent in 2000. The new focus on terrorism has led the FBI to nearly abandon the war on drugs, leaving that mission to the Drug Enforcement Administration, and to significantly scale back efforts against organized crime, white-collar crime, and gangs.

The FBI and other branches of the Justice Department are also making ample use of the new powers granted them under the Patriot Act. They have filed at least 18,000 anti-terrorism subpoenas and search warrants since September 11, 2001, and conducted more than 1,000 surveillance operations with permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court — a special court that can grant warrants without evidence that the person being investigated is engaged in criminal activity.

During the same period, Ashcroft requested 170 emergency spying warrants, which allow the FBI to investigate individuals without judicial review; in the 23 years since the court had been established, a total of only 47 emergency warrants had been issued. In addition, the FBI has stepped up its use of national-security letters — subpoenas that can be used to compel businesses such as banks, Internet service providers, and airlines to turn over large amounts of customer data. When the ACLU sued to force the bureau to reveal how often it has used such letters, the FBI released a list that filled five pages, but with most of the information blacked out.

So far, all of this has netted the government few, if any, coups in the fight against terrorism. Data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, based on Department of Justice numbers, show that in 2002, federal prosecutors nationwide charged 1,208 individuals with terrorism-related crimes. But the average sentence for those convicted on such charges was just two months — signaling that the crimes were mostly minor. Indeed, most of them reportedly involved offenses such as violating immigration rules, using a fake Social Security number, even getting drunk on an airplane.

Still, the Bush administration has launched a campaign to further extend federal spying powers by asking Congress to make the Patriot Act — parts of which are scheduled to expire in 2005 — permanent, and by drawing up plans for a measure dubbed “Patriot II.” The proposal would further lower the standards for court approval of FBI searches and surveillance, and it would allow agents to subpoena library, Internet, and bookstore records without going to court at all; it would also create a DNA database with samples from anyone suspected of being connected to a terrorist group. In addition, the association that represents state motor vehicle departments nationwide is creating the equivalent of a national ID card by combining driver’s license records from all 50 states; besides names, addresses, and photos, the database could include a biometric identifier such as a fingerprint or retinal scan.

The CIA, meanwhile, is establishing a much closer relationship with U.S. law enforcement. CIA officials are leading the new federal agency in charge of coordinating anti-terrorist activity, the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, where FBI agents work side by side with CIA analysts. According to John Rizzo, senior deputy general counsel for the CIA, the agency has also deployed officers to many of the FBI’s terrorism task forces, where they have begun working with local police, helping to set investigative priorities and identify targets for surveillance.

“Previously, this kind of activity would have been considered unpalatable,” says Rizzo, because of the rules keeping law enforcement and intelligence apart. “The CIA has never dealt with state and local officials,” he adds, “but we are going to have to learn to do so.”

Even the federal government’s sophisticated spy satellites and electronic eavesdropping equipment can be used against U.S. targets and U.S. citizens. Under an existing, though little-known, law, such high-tech gear can be directed against Americans as long as it is temporarily placed under the control of the FBI or another law-enforcement agency, according to a former high-ranking CIA official. “If the intelligence community has a technology that law enforcement thinks is of use to it,” the official says, “it can just be seconded to the law-enforcement agency.”

During the sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., area last fall, the Pentagon and the National Security Agency met to consider whether spy satellites might be useful in trying to find the snipers. Richard Schiffrin, the acting general counsel for the Defense Intelligence Agency, took part in those meetings. Participants, he recalls, kept harking back to the thriller starring Will Smith as an attorney under surveillance by a government agency that uses everything from infrared heat-seeking devices to listening gadgets to reconnaissance satellites. “Enemy of the State,” he says, “came up in every discussion.”


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