FBI’s black ‘extremists’ report ignites fears of return to illegal government watch

Political organizations and veteran members of the civil rights movement have expressed concern over an FBI report noting the rise of black “extremists,” and fear it could lead to a return to a time when the agency unjustly spied on organizations which hadn’t broken any laws.

The memo, released in August, said that violence against law enforcement has been on the rise from “black identity extremists” who “acted in retaliation from perceived past police brutality incidents” and noted its likely continuation.

It cited the deadly police shooting in Dallas in 2016, in which a sniper who was upset about police treatment of minorities killed five officers, and also a man in Baton Rouge, La., who killed three officers in 2016 after writing about the need to inflict violence on “bad cops.”

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The FBI said it doesn’t target groups without cause and the report only serves to acknowledge what they believe are emerging trends, noting that a memo on white supremacists was also filed. Nonetheless, they’ve drawn the ire of members of The Congressional Black Caucus, who said the report is mixing groups.

In a letter from the organization to FBI Director Christopher Wray, they said the report “conflates black political activists with dangerous domestic terrorist organizations” and would only further sever the ties between police and minority groups.

To further complicate the situation, Attorney General Jeff Sessions proved unable to answer questions about the report from Rep. Karen Bass, D-Ca., during a recent congressional hearing. Bass later said that the memo felt like “a flashback to the past.”

Sessions said he was aware of "groups that do have an extraordinary commitment to their racial identity, and some have transformed themselves even into violent activists." He struggled to answer the same question about white extremists.

Bass also said she’d received complaints from members of Black Lives Matter, who claimed they were being monitored and harassed by police in her district. She said she worries the report will send a message to police that it’s okay to crack down on groups critical of law enforcement.

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Additionally, some veterans of the black and Latino civil rights movement said the FBI assessment reminded them of the bureau's now-defunct COINTELPRO, a covert and often illegal operation under Director J. Edgar Hoover in the 1950s and 1960s. Agents were assigned to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalists," Hoover said in a once-classified memo to field agents.

The issue of race has been an especially hot topic during President Trump’s term following accusations that his administration was insensitive to racial issues, including his response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August.

In a statement to the Associated Press, the FBI said it cannot and will not open an investigation based solely on a person's race or exercise of free speech rights.

"Our focus is not on membership in particular groups but on individuals who commit violence and other criminal acts," the FBI said. "Furthermore, the FBI does not and will not police ideology. When an individual takes violent action based on belief or ideology and breaks the law, the FBI will enforce the rule of law."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.