A month ago, the House of Representatives passed legislation that targets Americans with radical ideologies for research. The bill has received little media attention and has almost unanimous support in the House. However, civil liberties groups see the bill as a threat to the constitutionally protected freedoms of expression, privacy and protest.
HR 1955, “The Violent Radicalization Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007,” apparently intended to assess “homegrown” terrorism threats and causes, is on a fast-track through Congress. Proponents claim the bill would centralize information about the formation of domestic terrorists and would not impinge on constitutional rights. On October 23, the bill passed the House of Representatives by a 404-6 margin with 23 members not voting. If passed in the Senate and signed into law by George W. Bush, the act would establish a ten-member National Commission on the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism, to study and propose legislation to address the threat of possible “radicalization” of people legally residing in the US. Despite being written by a Democrat, the current version of the act would probably set up a Commission dominated by Republicans. By allowing Bush and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff to each appoint one member of the Commission, and splitting the appointment of the other eight positions equally between Congressional Democrats and Republicans, the Commission would consist of six Republican appointees and four Democrat ones. The Commission would be tasked with collecting information on domestically spawned terrorism from a variety of sources, including foreign governments and previous domestic studies. The Commission would then report to Congress and recommend policy changes to address the threat. There is no opposition to this consolidation or research. However, the Commission would be given broad authority to hold hearings and collect evidence, powers that raise red flags for civil liberties groups. Civil liberties activists have criticized the bill, some comparing the Commission it would establish to the McCarthy Commission that investigated Americans for possible associations with Communist groups, casting suspicion on law-abiding citizens and ruining their reputations. The Commission would be empowered to “hold hearings and sit and act at such times and places, take such testimony, receive such evidence, and administer such oaths as the Commission considers advisable to carry out its duties.”
Odette Wilkens, the executive director of the Equal Justice Alliance, a constitutional watchdog group, compared the legislation to the McCarthy Commission and to the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which infiltrated, undermined and spied on civil rights and antiwar groups during the 1950s and 60s. “The commission would have very broad powers. It could investigate anyone. It would create a public perception that whoever is being investigated by the Commission must be involved in subversive or illegal activities. It would give the appearance that whoever they are investigating is potentially a traitor or disloyal or a terrorist, even if all they were doing was advocating lawful views,” Wilkens said. In a speech on the floor of the House before the vote, Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-California), the chair of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence and author of the bill said, “Free speech, espousing even very radical beliefs, is protected by our Constitution — but violent behavior is not. Our plan must be to intervene before a person crosses that line separating radical views from violent behavior, to understand the forces at work on the individual and the community, to create an environment that discourages disillusionment and alienation, that instills in young people a sense of belonging and faith in the future.”
In the same speech, Harman explained why “homegrown” terrorists are a threat to the US. She offered the explanation that adolescents who might be susceptible to recruitment by gangs might also be potential terrorists. “Combine that personal adolescent upheaval with the explosion of information technologies and communications tools — tools which American kids are using to broadcast messages from al-Qaeda — and there is a road map to terror, a ‘retail outlet’ for anger and warped aspirations. Link that intent with a trained terrorist operative who has actual capability, and a ‘Made in the USA’ suicide bomber is born,” Harman said. The bill specifically identifies the Internet as a tool of radicalization. “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.”
In a press release, Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington American Civil Liberties Union legislative office, took issue with this characterization. “If Congress finds the Internet is dangerous, then the ACLU will have to worry about censorship and limitations on First Amendment activities. Why go down that road?” Fredrickson asked in a press release. The ALCU has “serious concerns” about the bill. Fredrickson said, “Law enforcement should focus on action, not thought. We need to worry about the people who are committing crimes rather than those who harbor beliefs that the government may consider to be extreme.”
According to Wilkens, the bill, in its current form, lacks specific definitions, which would give the Commission expansive and possibly dangerous powers. The Committee would be set up to address the process of “violent radicalization,” which the bill defines 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.” According to Wilkens, the bill does not adequately define “an extremist belief system,” opening the door for abuse. “An ‘extremist belief system’ can be whatever anyone on the commission says it is. Back in the 60s, civil rights leaders and Vietnam War protesters were considered radicals. They weren’t committing violence but they were considered radicals because of their belief system,” Wilkens said. The bill would also create a “Center of Excellence for the Study of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism in the United States,” on an unspecified university campus. Unlike other Centers of Excellence, university-based government research centers created by the Department of Homeland Security, the Center established by this bill could have a chilling effect on political activity on campus because of its specific mission to “assist Federal, State, local and tribal homeland security officials through training, education, and research in preventing violent radicalization and homegrown terrorism,” according to Wilkens. “If you are on campus and the thought police are on campus, are you going to want to join a political group?” Wilkens asked. Congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) was one of three Democrats who voted against the bill, but he has given no public explanation for his opposition and his office did not respond to a call for comment as of this writing. Neither the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) nor Congressman John Conyers (D-Michigan), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, voted on the bill. The bill has been referred to the Senate Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut). With overwhelming support from the House, it is likely to pass quickly through the Senate.
Matt Renner is an assistant editor and Washington reporter for Truthout.