Back in October 2007, the House of Representatives passed The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act by an overwhelming 405 to 6 vote. The bill would have created and empowered a Congressional commission to hold hearings nationwide, conduct investigations, and propose new legislation to deal with the threat posed by various groups designated as “homegrown terrorists.” The legislation was introduced by then-Congresswoman Jane Harman, normally a reliable liberal, after she learned of alleged threats directed at synagogues in her California district.
The bill was also introduced to the Senate and was viewed favorably by the head of the Homeland Security Committee, at that time Sen. Joe Lieberman. It appeared to have majority support, but no action was taken on it and the bill eventually died in committee.
The demise of the Act was largely due to an uproar amongst civil libertarians regarding its overly broad definitions of what constitutes terror, leading numerous critics to challenge its potential infringement on First Amendment rights to free speech. Congressman Dennis Kucinich called it a “thought crime bill” and Ron Paul condemned it as both unconstitutional and unnecessary while also deploring its circumvention of the existing criminal justice system.
In Washington, a favored bit of legislation that doesn’t make it through the committee and onto the floor for a vote can always be tacked on to another bill. Or, if there is some awkwardness about it, it can always be repackaged and given another name. Both of those tactics are currently being employed to revive the Violent Radicalization Act as the The Countering Violent Extremism Act of 2015, which is now being rolled into the renewal of the Homeland Security Act as an amendment. It has also been bureaucratically jiggled, creating an Office for Countering Violent Extremism headed by an Assistant Secretary under the direction of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) rather than a commission run by Congress.
DHS defines violent extremists as “individuals who support or commit ideologically-motivated violence to further political goals.” It subdivides the extremists into domestic terrorists, which means native-born extremists who are generally speaking right-wing politically and anti-government, and homegrown violent extremists, who are U.S. citizens or residents beholden to a “foreign” ideology or terrorist group. In February, Homeland Security produced a report suggesting that the threat from domestic terrorists might well be as serious as that coming from individuals linked to overseas terrorism.
The legislation authorizing the new Office for Countering Violent Extremism is carefully neutral regarding exactly whom it is targeting, providing it with latitude to examine both domestic and internationally connected terrorism. But both political reality in Washington and most particularly the language used suggest that it will be heavily focused on Muslim communities and groups. It calls for “identifying risk factors that contribute to violent extremism,” “identifying populations targeted by violent extremist propaganda, messaging or recruitment,” and “assessing the methods used by violent extremists to disseminate propaganda and messaging to communities at risk for radicalization the recruitment.”
The intended mechanism is also clear. The bill calls for “leverag[ing] new and existing internet and other technologies and social media platforms to counter violent extremism,” a goal which might be connected to impending legislation that would compel providers to report on “suspect messages” relating to terrorism, which they do not currently do. Social media are understandably reluctant to become secret informants for the government while spokesmen on national security argue, inevitably, that it is essential to keep the country safe.
It is not difficult to see where this is going. The Office will hold hearings and will summon “experts” to speak, but there will be no critics of the program, only advocates drawn from places like the American Enterprise Institute, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the Heritage Foundation. They will all agree that homegrown violent extremism is a serious problem and it will be implicit that the development is inextricably connected to the rise of political Islam.
The Office for Countering Violent Extremism is neither unique nor radically different from much of what has taken place already. An unfortunate consequence of the trauma of 9/11 has been the creation of a number of new laws and commissions designed to protect the country, frequently through either deliberate or inadvertent limitation of rights that have long been viewed as fundamental. The Patriot Acts of 2001 and 2006, the Military Commission Act of 2006 and the annual Authorizations for the Use of Military Force have diminished constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of association, freedom from illegal search, the right to habeas corpus, prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, and freedom from the illegal seizure of private property.
That there might be homegrown terrorists in the United States is also not a revelation: their existence has been front page news since the time of the first World Trade Center bombing and Timothy McVeigh. But the increasing conflation of terrorism with Islamic militancy has been a more recent post-9/11 development. As terrorism is and always has been a crime and it is something that the law enforcement community and intelligence agencies have been dealing with intensively for the past fourteen years one wonders why a new Office with an expensive bureaucracy should now be required to address the problem.
It is certainly true that those who want to do more to confront what they see as a major threat believe that that something extraordinary must be done to anticipate and neutralize the homegrown problem, but many outside the national security bureaucracy believe that the threat itself has been overstated. Arrests and convictions in terrorism cases suggest that most of the alleged threat has come from activists who are more “wannabe” than the real thing, many of whom are arrested and charged after insertion of an FBI informant in law enforcement operations that might well be regarded as entrapment.
And some examples of similar programs both in the U.S. and overseas are not particularly encouraging. state department efforts to engage suspected militants in conversations through social media have generally been regarded as a failure. A major British initiative called “Prevent,” which began 10 years ago in the wake of the London bus and underground bombings, funded a number of programs supporting community outreach and dialogue but found that it was difficult to demonstrate what if anything was being accomplished. Worse, there was a public relations problem because many of those most effective at connecting with disaffected Muslim teenagers were themselves former Jihadis or religious extremists, suggesting that they might be doing more recruiting than dissuading. After 2010, the program began to emphasize less outreach and more surveillance of Muslim communities, a fact that was noted by those on the receiving end and perhaps an inevitable development in a initiative that seeks to combine educational and law enforcement functions but which has difficult in creating a firewall between them. Many critics of “Prevent” now note ruefully a new law in Britain that requires all government employees, including teachers and social workers, to inform the police if they suspect someone is being “radicalized.”
Even a well-intentioned effort to probe the mysteries of radicalization can produce unintended consequences, as the British experience suggests. The DHS’s own definition of “violent extremism” implies that numerous groups, including animal rights activists, anarchists, gun enthusiasts, and polygamists, could become part of the Office for Countering Violent Extremism mandate. As there will be no completely transparent or objective screening process, the agenda will be driven by the need to show some results. And the direction it takes will almost certainly be shaped by the same self-defined “experts” who will called upon to address the DHS panels. They currently enjoy good access to individual congressmen and to congressional committees, which will carry over into interactions with the new bureaucracy. Many of them have a scarcely concealed anti-Muslim agenda and it is likely that they and their associates will find plenty of terrorists and radical groups to investigate, including “anti-American” professors at various universities and critics of Washington’s post 9/11 foreign policy.