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For 16 years, Michael German infiltrated white supremacist groups and investigated white-collar, bank fraud, and public corruption cases as an FBI agent. In 2002, German complained that FBI agents had failed to fully investigate links between the leader of a domestic terrorist group and a supporter of an Islamic terrorist organization. Rather than investigate the allegations, German claims, his superiors ignored his concerns and sabotaged his career in retaliation. He resigned in 2004. (Last year, a Department of Justice Office of Inspector General report partly validated German’s complaints that he was punished for reporting on flaws and that FBI records were backdated.) German, a lawyer, landed at an unlikely place, the American Civil Liberties Union, which a year ago hired him as its policy counsel on national security, immigration, and privacy matters. Earlier this year, he published his first book, Thinking Like a Terrorist: Insights of a Former FBI Undercover Agent . Last week, he spoke with senior reporter Pedro Ruz Gutierrez about his transition from lawman to liberal activist.
LT: It’s been a year since you joined the ACLU. How would you assess your first 12 months in your new role? German: It was like jumping on a train that was going 100 miles an hour. I have had to learn an incredible amount about what was sort of going on [on] the Hill the last couple of years, as well as learning the ACLU policy. It was a steep learning curve, but fortunately there were great people here who mentored me.
LT: What have you brought to the table at the ACLU, and where are most of your efforts focused? German: What I brought to the table was 16 years of law enforcement experience, particularly in counterterrorism so I could be sort of a reality check on ACLU’s advocacy, but also bring some substance to some of the ACLU’s arguments. It has opened the door to .�.�. a lot of audiences who would listen to someone with 16 years of experience. For someone who worked in the security establishment and under the circumstances that are going on today, I understand why people find it unusual.
LT: Can you describe your duties as ACLU counsel? How involved are you in the fight over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act reforms, access to FISA court records, and other ACLU endeavors? German: I’m involved at a policy level, assisting the lobbyists and analyzing the bills for impact on privacy and civil liberties. I do a lot of writing, analysis, and speaking.
LT: You left the FBI in 2004 under a somewhat strained relationship with your former agency. How did your 16 years at the FBI shape you and help you for your new position? German: When I joined the FBI, I swore to protect the Constitution of the United States. In 14 years there, I found that it was easy to do. In the last two years I was there, I discovered another side of the FBI that was willing to break the law and bend it. It’s sort of really opened my eyes to the type of abuse when there’s improper oversight. So I learned the importance of oversight. What people don’t recognize is that the lack of oversight doesn’t improve security. It causes unaccountability, which, at least, causes incompetence to flourish.
LT: Have you stepped foot inside the FBI [since resigning in 2004]? German: [I did] this summer, at a group meeting between the director and privacy rights groups on the internal reforms following the national security letters audit. Actually the first time I met [FBI] Director Robert Mueller was as an ACLU counsel, not as an FBI agent.
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