Lawsuit Demands Information on Shadowy “Countering Violent Extremism” Programs in U.S.

A new lawsuit seeks to compel the government to reveal information about its Countering Violent Extremism programs.


LAST FEBRUARY, the White House held a three-day summit on the topic of “Countering Violent Extremism.” At the summit, government officials announced the launch of pilot programs in Boston, Los Angeles, and Minnesota to explore “the preventative aspects of counterterrorism as well as interventions to undermine the attraction of extremist movements.”

One year later, it’s still unclear what that entails, exactly. The government has provided few details on how it actually intends to “counter extremism” in the U.S., despite calling CVE an “administration priority” in the 2017 fiscal budget and allocating tens of millions of dollars in spending. In an indication of how these efforts are ramping up, this week a Senate subcommittee on Homeland Security approved a bill to create of an “Office for Partnerships Against Violent Extremism,” which will soon head to the full Senate for approval. A 2017 budget submission for the Office of Justice Programs also mentions “$69 million for CVE programs” proposed for the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice.

Hoping to shed light on the situation, the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act against the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Department of Education, and other federal agencies demanding the release of information about their CVE initiatives.

“Countering violent extremism programs have been identified by the government as a top national security priority, but the public knows appallingly little about them,” says Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project. “We’re suing because government agencies have repeatedly failed to provide us information that we’ve requested about the nature of their CVE initiatives.”

In a briefing paper released with its lawsuit, the ACLU said that CVE programs often target “people for monitoring based on their beliefs or ideologies,” thus potentially criminalizing speech protected under the First Amendment. It also highlighted past abuses of CVE programs, including instances in which young people who refused to take part were characterized as radicals and where community leaders were told they would have to identity and discuss cases of specific youths with law enforcement.

The Department of Homeland Security declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation. The Department of Justice did not respond to request for comment.

Government-led CVE efforts in the United States are inspired in large part by programs rolled out in past years in the United Kingdom. Broadly speaking, CVE programs seek to expand counterterrorism efforts beyond law enforcement to involve other government workers, like teachers and social workers, as well as community leaders outside of government, like clergy. They can involve propaganda and other communication strategies as well as monitoring and questioning.

Those programs have been deeply controversial in the UK, where civil society activists have blamed them for exacerbating ethnic tensions within British society while failing to meaningfully fight extremism. In recent months, the U.K. government has also rolled out anti-radicalization programs in schools, which have led to instances in which Muslim schoolchildren have been stigmatized by teachers as potential terrorists.

In the U.S., some of the most controversial CVE initiatives are those that focus on children. Leaked documents from the National Counterterrorism Center, published by The Intercept last year, showed that the government had developed a questionnaire to evaluate young people for their risk of future extremism, evidently for use by social workers, healthcare practitioners, and teachers, among others. A controversial online counter-extremism game called “Don’t Be a Puppet” was also launched by the FBI this week, ostensibly targeted at the same young demographic.

“The apparent focus on young people as a target of government counter-extremism initiatives should be troubling to everyone,” says Shamsi. “It would be very unfortunate to see teachers or social workers potentially reporting kids to law enforcement as possible extremists, particularly when many of the designated ‘warning signs’ for extremism correspond with ordinary behaviors often exhibited by adolescents and teenagers.”

Critics have also questioned whether there is any credible empirical or scientific basis behind CVE initiatives.

The ACLU, alongside many Muslim American civil society groups, fears that U.S. government CVE efforts will similarly undermine the position of Muslims living here. “Our country’s history shows that policies and programs that stigmatize one group always inevitably spread to other groups,” Shamsi says. “The government’s focus should be on policing crimes, not thoughts and beliefs.”

Top photo: Screen grab from the FBI CVE game “Don’t Be a Puppet.”

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