Examining the Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act

Harman doesn’t believe homegrown terrorism is a major threat to U.S. security today, but that it is important to learn from experiences in other countries like Britain and Canada, where citizens have been inspired to commit terrorism at home by Islamic propagandists reaching out over the Internet

BY Lindsay Beyerstein

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The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act passed the House of Representatives on Oct. 23 by a vote of 404-6. The wide margin is indicative of a growing concern among U.S. authorities about the potential for so-called “homegrown terrorism” in the United States.

“The impetus is that homegrown terror is something that we now see in Western Europe. It’s by far the number one threat to security in Britain,” Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), who introduced the bill, told In These Times.

Some of the most infamous terrorist attacks in U.S. history have been carried out by citizens, including the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Harman doesn’t believe homegrown terrorism is a major threat to U.S. security today, but she says that it is important to learn from experiences in other countries like Britain and Canada, where citizens have been inspired to commit terrorism at home by Islamic propagandists reaching out over the Internet.

One of the findings of the bill is that, “the Internet has aided in facilitating violent radicalization, ideologically based violence, and the homegrown terrorism process in the United States by providing access to broad and constant streams of terrorist-related propaganda to United States citizens.”

“A chief problem is radical forms of Islam, but we’re not only studying radical Islam,” Harman says. “We’re studying the phenomenon of people with radical beliefs who turn into people who would use violence.”

That worries Mike German, policy counsel for the ACLU, who calls the legislation “wrongheaded” because it focuses on ideology, rather than criminal activity. The bill calls for heightened scrutiny of people who believe, or might come to believe, in a violent ideology. German wants the government to focus on people who are actually committing crimes, rather than those who are merely entertaining violent ideas, something perfectly legal.

Harman’s bill would convene a 10-member national commission to study “violent radicalization” (defined as “the process of adopting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious, or social change”) and “homegrown terrorism” (defined as “the use, planned use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual born, raised, or based and operating primarily within the United States […] to intimidate or coerce the United States government, the civilian population of the United States, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”).

The bill also directs the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to designate a “center of excellence,” a university-based research center where academics, policy-makers, members of the private sector and other stakeholders can collaborate to better understand and prevent radicalization and homegrown terrorism.

Some experts have raised concerns about whether politics will unduly influence which institution DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff will pick.

“The bill replicates what already exists without peer review and safeguards,” says Chip Berlet, a senior policy analyst for Political Research Associates, an independent non-profit research organization that studies political violence, authoritarianism, and homegrown terrorism.

The bill stipulates that the research center be chosen on the basis of merit and according to existing DHS protocols.

However, Amy Kudwa, a spokeswoman for DHS, says she “would be surprised” if the selection process were peer-reviewed. Kudwa could not supply the full details of the selection process and funding arrangements as of press time.

Berlet characterizes the proposed research center as “a slush fund for politically connected people inside the Beltway.”

Mark Hamm, a former warden and current professor at Indiana State University who studies radicalization in prisons, expressed confidence in the good intentions of the Homeland Security administrators, but he echoed Berlet’s concerns about the potential for insularity.

“Government tends to reach out to the people that are known within the government to do this type of work,” Hamm says. “When the government reaches out in the area of terrorism, they reach out to Washington, they reach out to the Beltway.”

Rep. Harman strongly disputes the notion that political concerns will influence the selection of Commission members or the selection of the center of excellence.

“We’re not looking for political cronies,” Harman says.

But each of the 10 commission members will be appointed by a high-ranking elected official. The appointers include the president, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Speaker and ranking member of the House, the Majority and Minority leaders of the Senate, and senior members of the House and Senate committees overseeing homeland security.

The FBI already has a domestic terrorism unit. The U.S. intelligence community also monitors the homegrown terrorists and overseas networks that might be reaching out to US residents. The July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate included a section headed, “The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland.” But Harman argues that a national commission on homegrown terrorism could benefit the country in much the same way as the 9/11 Commission, the Silberman/Robb Commission or other high-profile national security inquiries.

Whatever the merits of a commission, they seem to be separate from the arguments for a center for excellence. After all, Congress can request testimony from the experts of its choice. There are other ways to fund research into domestic terrorism, including research grants awarded by peer review. One of the amendments to the bill emphasized the importance of international cooperation between U.S. authorities and experts in countries that have already contended with homegrown Islamic terrorist plots, but there is nothing stopping Congress from consulting with those experts now.

Berlet questions why the country needs the Secretary of Homeland Security to channel resources through a handpicked “center of excellence” when there are already so many scholars organizations studying political violence in America. He cited the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center as long-established, institutional sources of expertise on homegrown terrorism. Their efforts are complimented by independent scholars and writers across the country.

“Congress could just read their books,” he says.

Harman says she did not know who would be chosen to sit on the Commission. Nor did she suggest any names that might appear on the short list. She also told In These Times that it hasn’t been determined which institution will be chosen to host the Center for Excellence.

Hamm believes DHS might look to preexisting Centers of Excellence, such as the START program at the University of Maryland, which already has a working group on terrorist group formation and recruitment.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill will cost approximately $22 million over four years.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) voted against the bill because he objected to the government spending new money on this project when the House just passed a $37 billion appropriations bill for Homeland Security, Flake’s spokesman told In These Times.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) issued a statement saying that the money could be better spend funding preexisting law-enforcement efforts, rather than funding another commission. None of the three Democrats who voted against the bill–Reps. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), Neil Abercrombie (Hawaii), and Jerry Costello (Ill.)–was available for comment.

The bill’s broad language and loose definitions of “violent radicalization” and “homegrown terrorism” also arouse the concerns of many civil libertarians.

The broad wording of the bill leaves open many questions. If homegrown terrorism is defined to include “intimidation” of the United States government or any segment of its population–could the Commission or the Center of Excellence task itself with investigating groups advocating boycotts, general strikes, or other forms of non-violent “intimidation”?

“While we wholeheartedly support efforts to curtail terrorism, primarily coming from white supremacists, we would also like to see legislation that more vigorously defends civil rights,” says Devin Burghart, an expert on domestic terrorism at the Center for New Communities, a national civil and human rights organization based in Chicago.

Rep. Harman is careful to emphasize the language in the bill that states that the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts “shall not violate the constitutional rights, civil rights, or civil liberties of United States citizens or lawful permanent residents.” However, the bill also directs the DHS to write its own rules to protect civil rights and puts the Department’s office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in charge of making the rules for the commission and the research center as well as administering the audits.

The ACLU’s German says that an internal civil liberties and privacy review is no substitute for independent oversight.

“Nobody should be fooled that such an office would have authority to address policies that are approved at a high level of the administration,” German says.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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