Critics Say Bill Would Turn Muslim Communities into “Mini-Surveillance States”

Photo: MIke Mozart @ Flickr / CC 2.0

Photo: MIke Mozart @ Flickr / CC 2.0

by Murtaza Hussein
The Intercept

An open letter published this week by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, signed by a coalition of 42 civil rights organizations, says that a proposed bill designed to counter violent extremism would threaten “freedom of speech, association, and religion,” while doing little to actually combat terrorism.

The legislation, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on June 25, would create a new government agency, the Office of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security. While the practical implications of this new division still remain nebulous, the bill would give the new office a $10 million annual budget for “identifying risk factors that contribute to violent extremism,” identifying populations targeted for extremist propaganda, and developing government-approved “counter-messaging.”

The bill, as well as the proposed office, are described in the letter as “misguided and likely harmful,” and based on a theory of countering extremism that is backed by little empirical data, let alone metrics for gauging success.  The details of how the government intends to “fight extremism,” as evidenced in the legislation, are raising alarms for civil rights groups across the country, who have described the bill as an inchoate attempt to curb civil liberties that is likely to do more harm than good.

The letter says the bill would result in “religious and political views [being] identified as markers of pre-terrorism that must be reported to the government,” and adds that such a development would likely have the perverse effect of stifling public discourse while stigmatizing entire communities as potential security threats.

The proposed legislation comes amid a surge in putative terrorist threats posed by the militant group Islamic State, and a growing interest in formal programs dedicated to countering violent extremism. The White House held a summit earlier this year dedicated to the subject, but few specifics were announced.

The CVE office now appears to be giving shape to the administration’s efforts in this area.

The efforts to bring CVE programs, already long established in Europe, to the United States are now generating intense opposition from civil rights groups, which have characterized the government’s proposal to entrench CVE within the Department of Homeland Security as nothing less than an attempt to legislate the concept of pre-crime.

Critics charge that despite considerable government resources now being committed to the purpose of countering violent extremism, there is little evidence that CVE programs actually reduce violence, nor is there much to substantiate the claim that holding “radical” ideas is a predictor of violent behavior, the authors note.

Naureen Shah, the director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights Program, says the bill would have the potential result of creating “mini-surveillance states” within Muslim-American communities, by compelling the implementation of CVE programs that use threats and incentives to encourage people to report on each other’s political views.

“This is going to lead to a situation where people in Muslim communities can’t really trust anybody they speak with, because they might either be a government informant or someone who will report them to the government if they say something politically unpopular,” Shah says. “We’ve been raising these issues with the federal government for months, but they have refused to address the potential for abuse, nor have they done anything to prevent CVE programs from turning into community-wide surveillance operations.”

Government-directed CVE programs in Europe, such as the British PREVENT program (aimed at stopping young people from becoming radicalized), have in recent years generated accusations of McCarthyism, based on their tacitenlistment of teachers, doctors and other social services workers to help report other citizens believed to be exhibiting signs of potential “extremism.” The authors of the open letter cite the similarities between PREVENT and proposed U.S. CVE programs, further noting the potential for such programs to “morph into outright censorship.”

There are indications that the European programs are already migrating to the United States, a phenomenon the passage of the bill would accelerate.

This February, internal documents from the National Counterterrorism Center published by The Intercept revealed the existence of a “rating system” designed to help evaluate whether individuals and entire communities are at potential risk for extremism. Similarly, documents shared with The Intercept earlier this year also demonstrated how ostensible “community outreach” programs to Somali immigrants living in the Minnesota area encouraged surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations by law enforcement.

“This bill is part of a larger project of organizing the implementation of CVE programs in the United States, a field where a lot of money is now going to be flowing in,” Shah says.

A congressional hearing on the subject of countering violent extremism, which is expected to discuss the ongoing role of government in fighting terrorism, as well as the less-defined concept of “extremism,” is scheduled for July 15.

Empowering ordinary citizens, social services workers and law enforcement agencies to identify people as potential “pre-radicals” opens the door to grave potential abuses, Shah argues.

“You have to think about who you’re putting these programs in the hands of,” Shah says. “When you’re creating a circumstance where you’re instructing teachers to potentially identify their students as possible future terrorists, you’re giving incredible power to stigmatize people, with very few safeguards to protect against abuse.”