"I stereotype. It's faster."
—George Clooney in Up in the Air
Meet your neighbors: The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas has joined a nationwide hunt for information about the FBI's effort "to collect information about and map so-called 'ethnic-oriented' businesses, behaviors, lifestyle characteristics and cultural traditions in communities with concentrated ethnic populations." The Texas ACLU coordinated with 28 other state chapters, plus Washington D.C.'s, in filing Freedom of Information Act requests about the program.
"Gathering of information about groups based on their ethnic identity smacks of racial profiling and does little to make us safer in Texas or anywhere else," Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, said in a news release. "This is another example of law enforcement casting too broad a net that in turn yields little of real intelligence value."
(In case you haven't figured it out, we're really talking about Muslim and Middle Eastern communities.)
Maybe the ACLU is right, but we wonder: How does the ACLU know the FBI's project won't produce much useful intelligence? In intelligence gathering, how do you tell the wheat from the chaff until you harvest and sort it?
Racial and ethnic profiling is, of course, a Very Bad kind of harvesting and sorting. What we don't quite understand is what counts as Very Bad profiling. Must law enforcement be blind to reality? If you wanted to investigate the Mafia, is it very bad to gather general info about New York's Italian-American community? Or, if your beat is Chinatown, wouldn't it pay to have a map of, well, Chinatown?
"One of the important lessons the FBI learned from 9/11 is the need for better intelligence..." says FBI spokesman Bill Carter. "The sad truth is that terrorist groups are [generally] comprised of persons of a particular ethnicity...As an intelligence agency, we can't be content to wait for people to tell us about particular threats."
Carter says the FBI's Domestic Intelligence and Operations Guide instructs field agents to avoid targeting anyone or any group based on race, religion, freedom of speech or the practice of any other Constitutional right. At the same time, local FBI offices must know their own domains—in this case through the use of "geospatial mapping" to collate data about local communities, the way cops used to do with paper maps and pushpins. The ACLU wants the FBI to prove it's not up to bad things, but we dunno. Maybe the organization should wait until it actually finds evidence of profiling before it ties the FBI's hands. Wouldn't want to cast that net too broadly.