Homeland Security Chief Is Hijacking the Tragedy of 9/11 to Boost His Mass Surveillance Agenda

From the outset, federal Countering Violent Extremism programs have been rocked by accusations of human rights violations, including charges that they unfairly target Muslim communities with suspicionless surveillance and thought policing. But on the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Department of Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson took to the national media circuit to deliver a vigorous defense of such initiatives by stoking fear over “self-radicalized actors” on U.S. soil, even suggesting that CVE programs offer a modern-day version of Cold Ear-era ideological screenings.


In an interview from Ground Zero, Johnson was asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos what he thought of presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call for an ideological screening test. In August, Trump declared, “In the Cold War, we had an ideological screening test. The time is overdue to develop a new screening test for the threats we face today.”

Johnson’s reply to Trump’s comment was eyebrow-raising.

Well, we—we always look for indications—and we’ve enhanced our ability to look at this from—in social media. We always look for indications of a radical, violent bent. There were some lessons learned recently, where we believe we need to ramp up our looking at social media. We always look for indications of an extremist, violent nature, and that's what we do. And we're getting better at it every day and we're going to keep working at it. 

Ideology in and of itself, however, you've got to—you've got to define that a little better. We're determined to root out violent extremism and that's what we look for.

Johnson’s statement is a direct nod to the conveyor belt theory of radicalization, rooted in the notion that “extreme” ideas are responsible for violence and terror, an assumption that can be traced back to the Cold War. This model has been debunked by scholarly consensus, and even an academic study directly supported by the Department of Homeland Security, which holds that there is no single or simple profile for a terrorist. However, the unproven theory undergirds federal surveillance programs, including recent FBI guidelines for monitoring and reporting students in public schools across the country.

In a report released earlier this year, Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, warned that countering violent extremism programs around the world are relying on discredited theories of radicalization, leading to invasive government measures that stigmatize entire religious and ethnic groups.

“On paper, most strategies to counter violent extremism are generic,” Emerson wrote. “In practice, however, they tend to target specific groups determined to be most ‘at risk’ of being drawn to violent extremism… Such an approach can be discriminatory and stigmatize various minority, ethnic, religious or indigenous groups.”

Michael German, a fellow with NYU Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, told AlterNet, “Any number of studies show that there are not reliable predictive indicators of future violence, much less extremist violence, that can be applied to the general public, yet the government remains wed to a system of profiling based on specious ‘indicators’ promulgated by the intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Too often these models use religious practice and political advocacy or ideology as proxies for violence even though scholarly studies rebut such theories, leading to thousands of investigations of innocent people and a suppression of First Amendment activity.”

Yet, Johnson presented such an approach as a key defense against profound and ever-present dangers to U.S. society, arguing, “in the current environment, where we have to deal with the prospect of a lone wolf actor or a self-radicalized actor, just saying there’s no specific credible threat doesn’t tell the whole story. And that’s why you see a lot of security out here today in New York City and in other places where we’re observing 9/11.”

Johnson then went on to argue that, in some ways, the world is a safer place now.

“George, we are safer when it comes to protecting against another 9/11-style terrorist-directed attack from overseas,” he said. “Our intelligence community, our law enforcement, has become pretty good at connecting the dots when it comes to another overseas-based terrorist-directed plot on our homeland.”

In reality, all available evidence suggests that 15 years of the U.S.-led war on terror has made the world a far more dangerous place. In a report released in March 2015, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War concluded that the war on terror has “directly or indirectly” been responsible for killing 1.3 million people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan since Sep. 11, 2001. The report notes that the estimate is conservative and the total number of deaths in those three countries “could also be in excess of 2 million, whereas a figure below 1 million is extremely unlikely.”

According to the most recent Global Terrorism Index, released in 2015 by the Institute for Economics and Peace, “Since the beginning of the 21st century, there has been over a nine-fold increase in the number of deaths from terrorism, rising from 3,329 in 2000 to 32,685 in 2014.”

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