Documents Support Fears of Muslim Surveillance by Obama-Era Program

Human Rights

Internal US law enforcement documents describe a highly controversial community initiative aimed at identifying potential terrorists before they “radicalize” as being intimately related to intelligence gathering.

Despite years of official denials, American Muslim civil rights groups have claimed that Barack Obama’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiative was a euphemistic approach that targeted Muslims for surveillance.

The FBI described the CVE program as designed to “strengthen our investigative, intelligence gathering and collaborative abilities to be proactive in countering violent extremism”.

The description was made in an August 2016 document about an upcoming CVE training conference which has been revealed by a freedom of information request.

Under Donald Trump’s administration, the Department of Homeland Security is reviewing the effort with a mind to rebrand it “Countering Radical Islam” or “Countering Violent Jihad”.

Regardless of its name, the program has “in practice, focused almost exclusively on American Muslim communities”, according to a new study by the Brennan Center for Justice, which acquired the internal documentation under the Freedom of Information Act.

Civil-rights critics see the Obama-era CVE initiative as laying the groundwork for a Trump-era crackdown on American Muslims.

“The Obama administration portrayed CVE as a community-led approach to addressing terrorism and strenuously denied that it was a surveillance program. But law enforcement agencies charged with investigating and prosecuting terrorism – such as US attorneys, the FBI, and local police – sit at the center of these programs and see them as a way to collect information about Muslims who are not suspected of any crime,” said Faiza Patel, the lead author of the Brennan Center study.

In the Obama era, CVE was framed as a community partnership with the government. With grant money and government support, local leaders were encouraged to spot the warning signs of radicalization and equipped to prevent at-risk youth from going over the edge into violence, ostensibly as an alternative to prosecution. Administration officials strenuously denied both an outsized focus on Muslims and that CVE functioned as an intelligence effort.

But for American Muslims and civil libertarians, the defining structural features of CVE is the prominence of law enforcement within the program and a feeling of stigmatization because of it. US attorneys, the FBI and police play an conspicuous role in CVE. While tabulating CVE grant money is difficult because much remains out of public view, the Brennan Center estimates that a third of recipients are “police and public service agencies and policing research institutions”.

According to the August FBI document, CVE efforts “will be aligned with operational divisions to provide support for existing threat mitigation efforts”. The bureau’s partners are a “myriad of law enforcement offices”, including the “International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), major city chiefs [and] major county sheriffs”, while outreach efforts “allow for developing relationships with civic leaders, community organizations and academia”.

The Brennan Center notes that none of the CVE material it obtained from federal or local law enforcement rules out sharing information gleaned from CVE with police or homeland-security departments.

CVE is analogous, the Brennan Center writes, to a highly controversial program by the UK government called Prevent, which encourages local institutions like schools to report signs of radicalization. UK Muslims report feeling stigmatized by a program that they say encourages teachers, doctors and social workers into informing on them.

The FBI also appears internally inconsistent on whether radicalization leads to terrorism at all, a thesis terrorism researchers tend to consider overly simplistic. The August 2016 document calls for being “proactive” in addressing “catalysts leading to radicalization and mobilization”. 

But its 2015-era Strategic Plan to Curb Violent Extremism, also unearthed by the Brennan Center, instructs: “There is neither one path or personality type which is prone to adopting extremist views [or] exhibiting violent tendencies.”

In internal documents, CVE guidance on the warning signs of terrorist behavior covers a range of first amendment-protected speech and conflate political dissent with potential violence.

Such signs, according to a CVE program in Maryland’s Montgomery County, include a sense that the west is at war with Islam due to “US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, drone attacks in Pakistan, the establishment of military bases in Muslim majority countries, human rights abuses against Muslims in Guantanamo Bay, civil rights infringements, US support for Israel, and Washington’s reluctance to support regime change in authoritarian states in the Middle East”.

Other potential warning signs on display in CVE documents include feelings of alienation, hopelessness and injustice, which the Brennan Center notes are “not predictive of violence and would raise no suspicion if found in non-Muslims”.

The fate of CVE in the Trump administration is unclear. The FBI declined to comment and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to questions, including about the potential rebranding to explicitly focus on Muslims.

“While much has been made of proposals to change the name of the program to focus explicitly on ‘radical Islam’, CVE has always been about Muslims,” said the Brennan Center’s Patel.

“Its underlying premise – which ignores the incidence of right wing violence – is that American Muslim communities require special handling because of their susceptibility to terrorism. It is part of a continuum of stereotypes about Muslims as inherently violent that has culminated in the Trump administration’s obvious antipathy to Islam.”

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