Monday, November 26, 2007

Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism?

Who doesn’t want to prevent terrorism and violence? Not many folks I would imagine. So why am I in a snit over the federal legislative proposal H.R. 1955: the “Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007”? Because it is a $22 million foot in the door that could lead to the same type of government surveillance abuse that was denounced by Congress, the media, and activists in the 1970s.

Liberal congressional representatives apparently were sucker punched by the language and oddly forgetful of past government intelligence gathering abuses. It could easily turn into another privatized federally-funded giant slush fund for politically-connected hacks.

Anyone who remembers the infamous FBI Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) will recall how compiling files on the ideological leanings of dissenters opened the door to a systematic campaign of illegal surveillance and disruption, spawned tens of millions of pages of spy files, and even led to the murders of political activists—primarily people of color. Just read the text of the legislation, and these claims of potential abuse seem absurd. Have I become a paranoid conspiracy theorist? I don’t think so, but explaining why takes some doing. But isn’t protecting our civil liberties worth a little effort? Let’s start with the Bill itself, the “Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act.”

On October 22, the House of Representatives passed 404 – 6 a bill authorizing $22 million for the establishment of a “ National Commission On The Prevention Of Violent Radicalization And Ideologically Based Violence.” Read the text and follow the legislation here:

Two of the opponents were on opposite sides of the political spectrum: Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat from Ohio. That’s a clue in itself, but the text of the legislation seems innocuous. It sets up a short term study commission and a permanent government funded study center.

In its findings of fact, the House stated:

(5) Understanding the motivational factors that lead to violent radicalization, homegrown terrorism, and ideologically based violence is a vital step toward eradicating these threats in the United States.

Sounds OK, we need to understand more about how terrorism works, but none of these terms are adequately defined. Does violent radicalization include reading the work of leftist Che Guevara or rightist Otto Strasser? Last time I checked, it was legal to propose the violent overthrow of the Unites States government, as long as you didn’t suggest when and where. Still if these are the Thought Police, they are just studying the matter…or are they? Check out the next paragraph:

(6) Preventing the potential rise of self radicalized, unaffiliated terrorists domestically cannot be easily accomplished solely through traditional Federal intelligence or law enforcement efforts, and can benefit from the incorporation of State and local efforts.

Wait, “ Preventing the potential rise of self radicalized, unaffiliated terrorists”? How would that work? And why does it need the further integration of Federal, State, and local intelligence and law enforcement efforts? We saw the integration of integration of Federal, State, and local intelligence and law enforcement efforts under the FBI COINTELPRO operations; and they included cooperation from private, corporate, and right-wing spies. Couldn’t happen again? It already has, as outlined in a number of articles on just this sort of integrated effort in cities such as Philadelphia, New York, and Denver. Check out;;

And remember, the whole idea is prevention:

(1) The development and implementation of methods and processes that can be utilized to prevent violent radicalization, homegrown terrorism, and ideologically based violence in the United States is critical to combating domestic terrorism.

And the Internet is a special target:

(3) 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.

How would this “prevention” activity actually work? Will they track Internet browsing? How about what books we buy or take out of the local library?

This is not just a study commission; there is a permanent “ Center of Excellence for the Study of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism in the United States.”

According to the legislation, “The Center shall assist Federal, State, local and tribal homeland security officials through training, education, and research in preventing violent radicalization and homegrown terrorism in the United States” and develop “methods that can be utilized by Federal, State, local, and tribal homeland security officials to mitigate violent radicalization and homegrown terrorism.”

Why does this matter. Aren’t there safeguards? Well, since the Reagan Administration took office in 1980, we have seen the continuous erosion of the safeguards put in place in response to COINTELPRO and other examples of surveillance abuse by the federal government. Furthermore, what began as surveillance and data collection became an illegal FBI scheme to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” political dissidents that were seen as threatening the security of the United States. These targets were portrayed as “violent radicals.” Now the fear of terrorism has replaced the fear of subversion by radicals. With the new legislation, both hot buttons are pushed.

It is the penchant for data collection that gets government agencies in trouble with the Bill of Rights in the first place, according to the late Frank Donner:

"Intelligence in the United States serves as an instrument for resolving a major contradiction in the American political system: how to protect the status quo while maintaining the forms of liberal political democracy.”

Since evidence of actual wrongdoing was minimal, Donner suggested that within the intelligence community, "The selection of targets for surveillance, operations such as informer infiltration and wiretapping, and file storage practices reflect what may be called the politics of deferred reckoning, the need to know all about the enemy in preparation for a life or death showdown..." The intelligence community "anticipated" threats by relying on "ideology, not behavior, theory not practice." It treated activities which might be aimed--some time in the future--at undermining the government, as subversive. According to Donner:

"Domestic countersubversive intelligence is, in theory, future-oriented: 'subversive' activities are, in the language of the Bureau, those aimed at future overthrow, destruction, or undermining of the government, regardless of how legitimate these activities might currently be or how tenuous the link between present intentions and ultimate action."

As the specifics of the popular culture changed, so did the language used to describe the menace, although the institutionalized procedures remained remarkably constant-merely made more efficient with the advent and advances of computer technology. In the genesis of witch hunts, subversive begat extremist which begat terrorist. Donner noted the addition of the term "extremist" to the countersubversive arsenal of demonizing language, and discussed how the Reagan Administration and the New Right used the term "terrorist" to marginalize dissident groups.

I frequently write about homegrown violence and domestic terrorism carried out by a few people in right-wing social movements. I have also written about how some militant Islamic movements are forms of theocratic neofascism. So I am worried about violence and terrorism, but I am also worried about civil liberties, and sit on the board of the Defending Dissent Foundation. I suspect that this new initiative would quickly devolve into providing justifications for more political repression against Muslims and Arabs and people of color including Mexicans. We are a nation oozing xenophobia and nativism as pandering politicians make quite clear in the frequent drum beats about borders and the rule of law.

I fear that this new “Center for Excellence” will produce politicized research that will inevitably be bent toward the service of whatever administration is in power--Republican or Democrat. It can easily become a mechanism by which serious scholarly research will continue to be underfunded, and by which politically connected cronies of the current administration get cash in a pork barrel.

There are already government agencies that fund scholarly research into violence and terrorism. To centralize this research into a specific so-called Center of Excellence just means the ability to sidestep existing peer review systems, strict academic privacy safeguards for data collection, and the process of competitive proposals already being submitted by serious scholars.

An example of this type of semi-privatized centralized plan is the National Endowment for Democracy, (NED) which neatly circumvents the U.S. State Department and sets up a privatized foreign policy apparatus. The National Endowment for Democracy is a giant slush fund for political hacks who meddle in the internal policies of other countries. If other countries funded such a program sending political hacks to the United States to meddle in our elections we would all be outraged.

So in my view, H.R. 1955: the “Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007” is, like the NED, just another federal government scheme to sneak around existing processes for oversight and public scrutiny.

The issue is not the need to fund serious scholarly research into terrorism violence and bigotry. The issue is whether or not we want our tax dollars wasted by political cronies providing the type of answers the current administration wants. This is not to suggest that individual scholars would be the hacks, it is that by circumventing the traditional scholarly process which includes privacy restrictions and peer review, the proposed study commission achieves two politicized functions:

1) Researchers could collect the type of data that government agencies are currently forbidden to do because of past abuses regarding surveillance and data collection, and there is no guarantee that individualized information would not be passed to law enforcement agencies of the Department of Homeland Security.

2) The scholars chosen would reflect a skewed collection favoring research and analytical models that are biased in favor of the views and legislative desires of the current administration. This is true whether it is a Republican or a Democrat in the Oval Office.

None of this is necessary. News Flash! There are already a number of excellent centers that study terrorism and violence in the United States. Among the centers I have worked with are the Brudnick Center for the Study of Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University,; the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State Santa Barbara;; and the Hate Crimes Research Network at Portland State University in Oregon.

If you are a conservative, consider the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford,

Then there are a gaggle of individual scholars who already write on these subjects.

One of the sharpest is Jessica Stern at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. According to Stern, the work is already well developed. She writes about the causes of terrorism:

…it is worth considering the causes of terrorism. Several possible root causes have been identified, including, among others, poverty, lack of education, abrogation of human rights, the perception that the enemy is weak-willed. I've been interviewing terrorists around the world over the past five years. Those I interviewed cite many reasons for choosing a life of holy war, and I came to despair of identifying a single root cause of terrorism. But the variable that came up most frequently was not poverty or human-rights abuses, but perceived humiliation. Humiliation emerged at every level of the terrorist groups I studied — leaders and followers.

In the United States, my research leads me to argue that this is humiliation rooted in a sense of betrayal by government officials. It is this sense that led Timothy McVeigh to blow up a federal building in Oklahoma. This was in part generated by government failures and abuses related to the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas and the Weaver Family survivalist retreat at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. It was behind the murder of Mulugeta Seraw, by three skinheads in Portland, Oregon.

There are many other public intellectuals and scholars who study terrorism and violence. For example Mark Juergensmeyer, author of Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence; James Aho who has studied the Christian Identity movement; David Cook who studies how apocalypticism is generating dualism and violence within sectors of Islam; Nicholas N. Kittrie who explores the boundaries of dissent and violence; Dick Anthony and Thomas Robbins who write about “Religious Totalism, Exemplary Dualism,” and the propensity for violence; George Michael, author of The Enemy of My Enemy: The Alarming Convergence of Militant Islam and the Extreme Right. There are dozens more including Michael Barkun; Catherine Wessinger; Mark Hamm; Kathleen Blee; Jeffry Bale; Carol Mason; Lane Crothers, Abby L. Ferber, Patrick Minges; Betty Dobratz; Jack Levin, Brenda Brasher; Jack McDevitt, Stephanie Shanks-Meile; David Norman Smith; Jean E. Rosenfeld, Lorna Mason. This list was just off the top of my head.

There are also several public institutions not affiliates with a university, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Facing History and Ourselves, (which conducts research as well as producing an exemplary curriculum). I sometimes disagree with what these groups have to say, but they have produced a substantial body of work that creates a public dialogue without a “Center for Excellence.”

I have a much cheaper plan than the “Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act.” In fact it doesn’t add a red cent to the existing taxpayer burden…it’s called a library card.

Tell the Senate to reject this pending legislation, and refer those interested in more information to the Library of Congress, it’s a block away from the U.S. Capitol building, and it is free to the public. What a deal!

The section on Frank Donner and history is adapted from “Government Intelligence Abuse: The Theories of Frank Donner,”

For more background:

For other stories by progressives about this legislation:

"Examining the Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act",
Lindsay Beyerstein, In These Times.

"Bringing the War on Terrorism Home:
Congress Considers How to ‘Disrupt’ Radical Movements in the United States,"
Jessica Lee, The Indypendent.

"Enemies of the State,"
Wendy Kaminer, The Phoenix

"Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act Raises Fears of New Government Crackdown on Dissent,"
Amy Goodman interviews Jessica Lee and Kamau Karl Franklin.

t r u t h o u t | Report
Matt Renner