Homeland Security's Revised Anti-Extremism Plan Draws Mixed Reviews

One critic cited "obvious red flags" in such cases as the travels and social media contacts of killers of the government employees in San Bernardino, Calif., last December and said vetting of people entering the country must improve. One critic cited "obvious red flags" in such cases as the travels and social media contacts of killers of the government employees in San Bernardino, Calif., last December and said vetting of people entering the country must improve. Nick Ut/AP

As one of the government’s major prongs in the effort to fight domestic terrorism, the Homeland Security Department this week unveiled its detailed strategy to “counter violent extremism,” a plan for grants and community partnerships that has drawn criticism from the right and the left.

The plan released on Oct. 31 fleshes out administration-wide guidance released two weeks earlier that loops in the Justice, State and Education departments; the FBI; the U.S. Agency for International Development; and the National Counterterrorism Center in a task force. Their approach keeps with the Obama administration’s emphasis on evidence-based research and analysis leading up to program evaluation.

“Research shows that parents, neighbors, colleagues, peers, teachers and community leaders are best positioned to address the underlying causes of violent extremism, recognize when an individual becomes ideologically-motivated to commit violence, and intervene before an individual or a group commits an act of violent extremism,” says the new document laying out plans for identifying gaps in research while organizing budgets and coordination among units to prepare educational materials for communities.

It lays out four principles:

  • Violent extremists have many motivations and are not limited to any single population, region or ideology; 
  • Local community partners are most effective at safeguarding individuals in the United States against violent extremist radicalization and recruitment to violence; 
  • Intelligence and law enforcement investigations are not part of  [Countering Violent Extremism] activities; and, 
  • Preservation of individual liberty, fairness, and equality under the law and respect for civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy are fundamental to CVE.

George Selim, director of the DHS Office for Community Partnerships, noted that the department has already developed the first federal grant program dedicated to supporting local CVE efforts. “We remain committed to engaging communities and building the trust that is fundamental to this work,” he wrote in a blog post. “This strategy affirms that we are protecting the homeland while upholding our values.”

The department’s latest release does little to assuage the privacy and civil rights concerns of the American Civil Liberties Union, Hugh Handeyside, staff attorney on its New York-based National Security Project, told Government Executive. “The government is continuing to push a CVE program that stigmatizes American communities, and promote what amounts to community spying,” he said. “This new focus on finding an empirical basis for these programs just drives home that they lack that basis now.”

In a critique published earlier this year evaluating the five-year-old DHS program, the ACLU wrote, “While preventing violence and strengthening communities are worthwhile goals, the scant public information about CVE programs suggests that they are based on discredited and unscientific theories positing a progression from religious or political beliefs to violence. The little public information about CVE programs that have been implemented in the United States indicates that they threaten fundamental rights, divide communities and cast suspicion on law-abiding Americans.”  

Blasting the plan from a different perspective, Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, called it typical of the Obama team’s overall approach to immigration policy.  “The hallmark of this administration is that enforcement is not a priority, while [they favor] letting as many people in the country as possible, and then hoping to do outreach to change the minds of people inclined toward acts of terrorism,” he said. 

FAIR is troubled by the document’s declaration not to coordinate with intelligence or law enforcement in CVE outreach. “You must go in from many different angles, and the best way to confront Islamic radicalism is to contain it in the first place and prevent it from taking root,” Mehlman said. “The point of the strategy is to pay attention to pockets of radical people being indoctrinated” but not involve law enforcement. Citing “obvious red flags” in such cases as the travels and social media contacts of killers of the government employees in San Bernardino, Calif., last December, he said DHS has ignored warnings from the FBI director and the director of national intelligence that “there is no effective means of vetting people coming into this country. There are a lot of ifs, and the consequences of getting it wrong can be catastrophic.”

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