Why We Should Be Concerned When Clinton Says Muslims Are on the 'Front Lines' of the War on Terror

While all eyes are on Trump's open bigotry, the White House is advancing a "Countering Violent Extremism" plan that threatens the civil rights of Muslims.

Photo Credit: PBS / Screenshot

During the final presidential debate, Hillary Clinton declared that in order to address our “internal challenges” with ISIS and radicalization, it is necessary “to work with American Muslim communities who are on the front lines to identify and prevent attacks.”

Casually repeated throughout her campaign, proclamations like these have been drowned out by Trump’s bombastic calls to impose a ban on Muslims and kill the family members of ISIS. However, Clinton's remarks demand scrutiny, as they reflect her support for the Obama administration’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, in which Muslim-American communities are targeted for suspicionless surveillance and instructed to report their own community members under the banner of the War on Terror.

Under the cover of 24/7 horse race media coverage, the White House on Wednesday issued its latest iteration of its CVE program, which Clinton has repeatedly championed. The new “Strategic Implementation Plan” replaces a 2011 version, identifying three priority areas: “(1) enhancing engagement with and support to local communities; (2) building government and law enforcement expertise for preventing violent extremism; and (3) countering violent extremist propaganda while promoting our ideals.”

According to the new document, the “goal is to enable communities to develop their own solutions to build local resilience while appropriately protecting civil rights and liberties, fostering greater trust, and fulfilling public safety objectives.”

In reality, the new guidelines double down on the most controversial elements of the CVE, which has been dogged from the outset by accusations that it violates the civil rights of Muslim Americans. Among these measures is the reinforcement of “local intervention teams” through which health practitioners, faith-based leaders and educators are obligated to collaborate with law enforcement to monitor and report members of their community for signs that they could become violent extremists in the future.

The CVE program was first publicly launched by the White House five years ago to “address ideologically inspired violent extremism in the Homeland." It involves multiple federal agencies including the FBI, Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security. In 2015, Attorney General Eric Holder rolled out three “pilot programs” in Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles which solely targeted Muslim-American communities -- and not adherents of right-wing extremism like neo-Nazis. Earlier this year, the FBI released guidelines instructing high schools across the country to surveil and report children for indicators that they are at risk of committing an violent act in the future.

According to the latest plan released by the White House, “Local intervention teams will play a critical role in assessing the needs of individuals who may be radicalizing to violent extremism; developing appropriate support plans tailored to the individual; and making resources available to increase resiliency. The document states that such interventions will include “alternative pathways or ‘off-ramps’ for individuals who appear to be moving toward violent action but who have not yet engaged in criminal activity.”

Shannon Erwin, executive director of the Muslim Justice League, warned that these friendly sounding alternatives are cover for heightened surveillance: "The plan, in using the term 'off-ramps' suggests CVE interventions will direct youth away from prosecution and towards social services, which sounds great. But that message suggests the FBI and Department of Justice are seeking to reduce terrorism prosecutions," Erwin told AlterNet. "If so, they have wide prosecutorial discretion to do so already, and can decline to engage in aggressive pre-emptive prosecutions of Muslim youth with mental health and intellectual challenges that have been well-documented.  Whether or not the government calls these interventions community-driven doesn't change the fact that they may involve the eliciting of information by law enforcement from social services providers about individuals' beliefs and lawful activity."

Unlawful intelligence gathering disguised as counter-extremism?

A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Northern California, Asian Law Caucus and the San Francisco Bay Guardian revealed in 2012 that a years-long “Mosque Outreach” initiative led by the San Francisco office of the FBI was used to unlawfully gather and disseminate intelligence on Muslim community members. The ACLU notes, “The San Francisco FBI’s own documents show that it recorded Muslim religious leaders’ and congregants’ identities, personal information and religious views and practices.”

"It is important to remember that these interventions are not necessarily going to be targeted at folks who have committed any crime," said Erwin. "From what we have read, and based on experience in the U.K., they will instead target people who exhibit vaguely defined or undefined 'concerning behaviors.' This is in spite of official acknowledgments that sound research has concluded there are no reliable 'pre-crime' indicators."

The “intervention teams” appear to rebrand a role that previously fell under the auspices of the FBI through panels termed “shared responsibility committees.” Those bodies were allegedly abandoned by the FBI after falling under criticism for civil rights and privacy violations.

Michael German, a former special agent with the FBI, is now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program. He told AlterNet, “I’m most concerned about the codification of what was previously presented as an FBI program. The concept of a multi-disciplinary board of community members, educators and psychologists doesn’t seem to acknowledge that these professional roles have a legal and ethical obligation to protect the privacy of students and patients. When teachers and doctors are seen as conduits to the justice department and homeland security, rather than safeguarding the health and welfare of students and patients, it undermines their ability to provide services in an effective matter.”

The CVE model: A failed, debunked program in the UK

A report released this week by the Open Society Institute (OSI) found that the CVE program’s U.K. counterpart—known as Preventing Violent Extremism Prevent—has eroded trust between teachers and students, as well as doctors and patients. Since the U.K. government passed the “Counter-Terrorism and Security Act in the summer of 2015, hundreds of thousands of public workers—including doctors and teachers—have been mandated to monitor and report members of the public for signs of “radicalization.” The OSI report outlines the consequences of this policy:

Prevent’s overly broad and vague definition of “non-violent extremism” creates the potential for systemic human rights abuses. On the basis of this definition, schools, universities, and NHS trusts, among other “specified authorities” subject to the Prevent duty, are required to assess the risk of children, students, and patients being drawn into terrorism and report them to the police-led Channel program where necessary. By the government’s own admission, thousands of people have been erroneously referred to the Channel program. Individuals (including children) erroneously referred under Prevent experience the referral as inherently stigmatizing and intensely intimidating.

According to German, the newest iteration of CVE implements the same methodology criticized in the OSI report. “If you confront the U.S. government about how they’re following the U.K. model, they’ll say we're not, because it’s voluntary,” said German. “But in Britain they first tried it voluntarily, and then when that didn't work, they made it mandatory.”

The latest strategic plan states that the CVE Task Force will "cooperate with a variety of departments and agencies to find opportunities to integrate CVE activities into existing public safety initiatives and networks, such as those focused on bullying prevention and Internet safety." The implication that a counter-terror initiative backed by multiple federal agencies will insert itself into local anti-bullying efforts, presumably targeting children, raises further concerns about civil rights violations.

However, the CVE approach has a more fundamental problem. The claim that there is a single path to violent extremism, or profile of a future “terrorist,” has been debunked by scholarly consensus, Britain’s M15 spy agency and an academic study supported by the Department of Homeland Security. Earlier this month, the London-based human rights organization Cage exposed new evidence that the government’s guidelines for identifying at-risk individuals at the “pre-criminal” stage are based on flawed science.

The Strategic Implementation Plan makes a nod towards this consensus by stating, “There is no single cause of or pathway to violent extremism. This requires a comprehensive response that empowers stakeholders at the local level.” However, the document goes on to indicate that there are “activities or behaviors” that suggest “an individual is being radicalized or has violent intent.” The plan does not elucidate what these behaviors are, nor what evidence it is drawing on to back up this claim.

Arun Kundnani, author of The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, extremism, and the domestic War on Terror, told AlterNet that the new plan “assumes incorrectly that there is a way of predicting who might be a terrorist in the future. What this will do is add to the ways that young Muslims are treated with suspicion based simply on their religious affiliation.”

Could CVE be expanded to other communities facing repression?

Facing mounting criticism, federal agencies have sought to defend themselves from charges that they are singling out Muslims by claiming that the program will go after extremists of all types. Brette Steele, the acting deputy director of the CVE task force, emphasized on a call Wednesday with community partners that the federal program is tackling white supremacist movements and hate crimes against LGBTQ communities and others. She framed the initiative in terms of local empowerment, stating that “we need to allow communities to shape these programs.”

“The proof of whether that rhetoric holds up is where the policies are rolled out,” said Kundnani. “It’s clear that CVE focuses on Muslim populations, and there’s no indication that hot spots of the far right are being targeted.”

However, he added that “the solution is not to roll it out to everyone, but to not have anyone impacted by the policies.” At a time when police departments across the country are baselessly smearing the Black Lives Matter movement leaders as “terrorists,” and militarized police are being deployed against Native American activists at Standing Rock, many worry that broad application of CVE policies would end up targeting communities already facing repression.

Civil rights campaigners say they do not want Muslim-American communities to be used by Clinton or any other politician as a wedge to expand CVE programs.

"I do believe that general discourse, whether from mainstream politicians or anybody else, that portrays Muslims as chips in the War on Terror is dehumanizing and a form of structural violence that makes people think programs like CVE are normal," said Erwin. Regarding CVE, she noted, "Attempts to redefine lawful behavior as 'pre-criminal' behavior can do a lot of harm to a lot of people."

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Sarah Lazare was a former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams. She coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.