Privacy SOS

Discriminatory government ‘terror’ programs violate our freedoms and won’t work to keep us safe

In September 2014, the University of Massachusetts at Boston held a terrorism conference where academics, police officers, FBI agents, and officials from private consulting agencies shared information about (mostly Muslim) terrorism research and threats. Among the talks and presentations at the event was this one:

Gerald M McMahon and Edward J Valla (Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston Intelligence Branch), “Want to Find the Next Terrorist? Try Amazon, Not the FBI: How Industry Can Use Customer Analytics to Identify the Next Homegrown Terrorist.

A man named Arthur Kendall representing an outfit called “Social Research Consultants” gave a talk called ‘Thinking about torture in intelligence gathering.’ This website describes him as a “social and political psychologist.”

A major feature of the UMass event was something the terrorism industrial complex calls "countering violent extremism" (CVE) programming. The countering violent extremism methodology is based off of flawed and thoroughly discredited “radicalization” models, another focus of the attendees’ research. While CVE sounds innocent enough at first blush, a closer examination reveals it's yet another government program that unfairly labels Muslims as “extremists,” chills First Amendment expression, and likely serves as yet another avenue for state surveillance and coercion of Muslim and other communities of color.

A terrorism prevention methodology that targets Muslims was right at home at the UMass terror conference, where the vast majority of the discussion relating to specific terror incidents or communities involved Muslims. The focus on Muslim terrorism, while offensive in its own right, obscures an important fact about violence in the United States: Americans are more likely to be killed by right-wing extremists than Muslim “jihadis.” For that reason obsessing over extremist Muslims—rather than engaging in evidence-based analysis of who is likely to commit a violent crime—isn’t only morally repellant; it’s also a bad way to protect public safety. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know that from either the program of the UMass terror conference or the focus of the Department of Justice’s “CVE” project, which despite lofty rhetoric to the contrary appears to exclusively target Muslim communities.

The Boston terror conference arrives at around the same time as a pilot CVE program hits the city, direct from the White House. Here's how Eric Holder describes the project:

Through law enforcement agencies like the FBI, American authorities are working with our international partners and Interpol to disseminate information on foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, including individuals who have traveled from the United States.  We have established processes for detecting American extremists who attempt to join terror groups abroad.  And we have engaged in extensive outreach to communities here in the U.S. – so we can work with them to identify threats before they emerge, to disrupt homegrown terrorists, and to apprehend would-be violent extremists.  But we can – and we must – do even more.

Today, I am announcing that the Department of Justice is partnering with the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center to launch a new series of pilot programs in cities across the nation.  These programs will bring together community representatives, public safety officials, religious leaders, and United States Attorneys to improve local engagement; to counter violent extremism; and – ultimately – to build a broad network of community partnerships to keep our nation safe.  Under President Obama’s leadership, along with our interagency affiliates, we will work closely with community representatives to develop comprehensive local strategies, to raise awareness about important issues, to share information on best practices, and to expand and improve training in every area of the country.

Boston is one of three pilot cities chosen for the CVE roll-out (L.A. and Minneapolis are the other two). What’s being marketed in these cities and to the American public as an “inclusive” plan to “help build the more just, secure, and free society that all Americans deserve” is actually a thinly veiled assault on Muslim Americans.

The government says it wants to create open channels with communities, to ensure people feel comfortable approaching law enforcement if they’re legitimately worried about someone committing violence, but recent history and the federal government’s other terror efforts undermine that claim. For example, nothing in the law prevents officials from using CVE gatherings with Muslim communities as intelligence-gathering opportunities.

In a letter to White House advisor to the President for Homeland Security and National Security Lisa Monaco, the ACLU warned that the CVE program should not “encourage[] communities to report to law enforcement on the expressive or associational activities or beliefs of their members.” But that's exactly what it appears to set out to do.

The ACLU’s letter follows comments Monaco gave at a CVE-related speech at Harvard University in the spring of 2014, where she told an audience at the Kennedy School that parents may want to report their teenagers to authorities if they notice their kids “becoming confrontational.” Religious leaders, she said, should consider reporting on teenagers if they “notice unexpected clashes over ideological differences.”

If you can’t see why these comments fly in the face of free expression and First Amendment rights, consider how they might sound if Monaco were dispensing such advice to synagogues or groups of Catholics. If you still agree that Muslim committees should be targeted for unconstitutional surveillance, and that Muslim parents should be uniquely encouraged to report their children to the government for expressing controversial views, it’s worth examining what has happened in the past when concerned family members have notified the FBI about a child they worry is turning to violence.

For Mohamed Osman Mohamud of Oregon, his father’s phone call to the FBI resulted in what bore all the trappings of an FBI entrapment operation. The FBI sting landed the Oregon teenager in prison for thirty years, convicted of federal terror charges. Then there’s Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, whose father called the CIA to say he thought his son might be involved with terrorists in Yemen. That phone call led to no meaningful action from the CIA that would have stopped the young man from boarding a plane with a one way ticket and no luggage, a bomb in his underwear. You might know Abdulmutallab as “The Christmas Day Bomber.” Finally, the Russian FSB’s warning to the Boston FBI that Tamerlan Tsarnaev posed a terror threat resulted in what we are told was a cursory investigation that turned up nothing suspicious. We all know how that ended.

What’s the message to Muslim Americans who are targeted by the CVE program? If you report your child’s speech to the Feds, they’ll either fix up a terrorism plot to land your kid in federal prison for decades, or effectively ignore it, with consequences that could be even worse. Besides, the federal government already receives thousands of so-called “terror tips” every day. Prior cases like the Marathon attacks here in Boston suggest this information deluge hurts public safety, not helps.

Programs like CVE fail not only because officials fail to meet their promises. They are inadvisable not only because they sow distrust between targeted communities and law enforcement. Ultimately they are wrong because they target people for who they are, rather than what they do. That’s not just unconstitutional. It’s also ineffective.

When speech is a threat, everyone is a terrorist. And when everyone is a terrorist, there’s no way of stopping truly dangerous people before it’s too late—the system is too clogged up with people expressing antiwar views, or who have beards. One example among many of this problem is the government’s bloated “Terror” watch lists, which are full of innocent people listed because of their name, religion, nationality, or politics. The lists therefore fail to protect public safety, in addition to wreaking havoc in ordinary people's lives.

Here in Boston, we’re intimately familiar with what happens when the government’s trillion dollar terror industrial complex fails to catch a bad guy. But despite the FBI’s attempt to whitewash its own failures in the run up to the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013, we know the bombing happened not despite but, in part, because of the government’s flawed approach to counterterrorism. Instead of focusing on actual criminal activity, our government has focused on millions of innocent people because of their national origin or religion, or because of their political views. The Boston Marathon bombing happened as officials wasted billions of dollars profiling hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims throughout the country, and in part because of this discriminatory ‘intelligence’ model.

When speech, religious association, and unpopular political views become justification for government harassment, intelligence profiling, and worse, the values that make a free society strong are weakened. The “countering violent extremism” model promoted by some “terror” focused academics and the federal government in Boston is discriminatory. For that reason it’s a threat to both democracy and public safety. The things that make us less free often make us less safe, as well. Almost fifteen years after 9/11, it’s high time we internalized that—on college campuses, in government facilities and our homes.

Interested to hear more about 'countering violent extremism'? Come to a community forum October 24, 2014 in Roxbury, MA.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.