Shadow Units: FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces

By Jen Soriano
Oct 30, 2010

To resist the landslide of attacks on our eroding civil liberties in the US, we've got to know more about the intelligence and security complex that has us active political types in their sites.

But first, a little perspective on just how sprawling a system it is that we're facing.

Former director of national intelligence Admiral Dennis C. Blair told the Washington Post: "After 9/11, when we decided to attack violent extremism, we did as we so often do in this country," he said. "The attitude was, if it's worth doing, it's probably worth overdoing."

According to the Washington Post's two-year investigation, "Top Secret America", there are 1,271 government organizations, 1,931 private companies and 854,000 "intelligence" operatives in about 10,000 locations across the United States, all with the license to fight shadow wars.

Many of these operatives are organized through the FBI and its Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF). The FBI describes these task forces as “small cells of highly trained, locally based, passionately committed”...terrorists? no, law enforcement agents. Local JTTFs are organized and coordinated at the Federal level by the National Joint Terrorism Task Force (NJTTF), based in FBI headquarters.

Since July 2002, the NJTTF has established 103 JTTFs in as many cities, and coordinates surveillance and information exchange between 38 distinct US agencies at the federal, state and county levels - including ICE, Customs and Border Patrol, and the Postal Inspection Service. All to the tune of almost 8 billion dollars per year and growing.

The JTTF structure is worth taking a closer look at because it shows that the shadows looming over us have an address in our own backyards. As Shahid Buttar of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee puts it, “At the federal level these are all different agencies, but at the local level it's all the Mayberry police department.”

Much like the way the Department of Homeland Security operationalizes Secure Communities and 287g programs, the FBI essentially enters into a contract with local law enforcement officials to launch a JTTF in any given city. From there on out, the FBI is in explicit control. All past, current and future information based in the local agencies essentially becomes property of the FBI.

According to the JTTF website, once a contract is signed the FBI then deputizes all local JTTF members as special U.S. Marshals. All members are required to submit information from all previous investigations for review, and are required to regularly report on developments to the FBI Special Agent in Charge.  The FBI forbids JTTF members from speaking to the press without express permission.

This surrender of local control to the FBI led Portland to be the first city to opt out of the JTTF program in 2005.  This unfortunately hasn't stopped the JTTF program from expanding to dozens of additional cities since then. One of the primary incentives – grants from the Department of Homeland Security. Increased money, increased agents, increased surveillance without even the basis of suspicion.

“Every protest now not only brings out local cops but also is a potential terrorist event monitored by Joint Terrorism Task Force personnel,” Bill Quigley, Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights told War Times. “They are going after First Amendment protected activities of freedom to assemble and freedom of speech.”

We'll leave the last word for now to Mike German, a 16 year veteran of the FBI who now works as national security counsel for the ACLU:

“There's a reason that pulling a fire alarm when there isn't a fire is a crime. While the FBI is out chasing peaceful anti-war activists, real terrorists are out there and in so many of these cases time and money is being wasted on these silly investigations where nobody is a threat.”

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Jen Soriano is a Pinay writer, communications strategist, and musician based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  She is communications coordinator for the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, an alliance of mass-based organizations connecting local struggles in the U.S. with international movements for human rights, economic justice, and global well-being.  She is also a co-founder and board chair of the Center for Media Justice.

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