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ACLU seeking FBI records on race and ethnicity data

By Carol Cratty, CNN Senior Producer
An FBI spokesman said the focus on knowing the domains around each field office is an outgrowth of the 9/11 attacks.
An FBI spokesman said the focus on knowing the domains around each field office is an outgrowth of the 9/11 attacks.
  • The ACLU wants FBI records on collection of race and ethnicity data
  • The FBI says field offices are told to "understand your entire community"
  • The FBI says such data helps the agency fight national security threats and crime
  • The ACLU says gathering such data "invites unconstitutional racial profiling"

Washington (CNN) -- The American Civil Liberties Union is seeking records from more than two dozen FBI offices around the nation about the "collection and use of race and ethnicity data in local communities," according to a press release issued by the civil liberties group.

The ACLU is concerned about FBI practices allowed by its 2008 "FBI Domestic Intelligence and Operations Guide" that would permit the bureau to collect information and map racial and ethnic data. The ACLU press release says, "the FBI's attempt to collect and map demographic data using race-based criteria for targeting purposes invites unconstitutional racial profiling by law enforcement."

An FBI spokesman said the bureau is not targeting any particular groups, but that each field office is instructed "to know your domain, that means you understand your entire community." The spokesman said that includes information about what ethnic groups are in a particular area, but it also includes things such as what particular high-tech businesses might reside in a place that could be vulnerable to espionage.

The FBI spokesman said the focus on knowing the domains around each field office is an outgrowth of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks and the bureau's focus on improving intelligence gathering, analysis and dissemination. The spokesman said this needs to be done in a manner consistent with protecting civil rights and civil liberties.

The ACLU is filing Freedom of Information Act requests seeking records from 29 states and the District of Columbia. The organization's press release says the FBI's operations guide gives agents authority to gather information and make maps of "so-called 'ethnic-oriented' businesses, behaviors, lifestyle characteristics and cultural traditions in communities with concentrated ethnic populations."

The FBI Domestic Intelligence and Operations Guide says agents can identify areas with concentrated ethnic populations "if these locations will reasonably aid the analysis of potential threats and vulnerabilities."

The guide says intelligence could indicate members of a particular terrorist group are known to reside in communities with a certain ethnic population. But the guide also says it's important to know the location of ethnic groups that might be vulnerable to hate crimes in order for law enforcement to protect such communities.

FBI Director Robert Mueller spoke about the use of geospatial mapping technology -- combining software and analytical methods with geographic data -- during a November 2008 speech to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He said the technique is useful in fighting both national security threats and crime.

"It allows us to combine and visually map crime data from a multitude of agencies -- everything from shootings to sources, and from outstanding warrants to open investigations," said Mueller. "Visual mapping shows us our domain. It reveals connections among our cases we might not otherwise see. And it helps us better manage our resources."