Blog of Rights

ACLU Lens: Obama Plan to Fight Violent Extremism a Step in the Right Direction, But…

By Steve Gosset, ACLU at 5:48pm

The Obama administration today released its strategy to prevent violent extremism, which outlines a broad initiative involving federal, state, and local agencies.

Hina Shamsi, Director of the ACLU National Security Project, called the strategy a “step in the right direction.”

“However, its true test will be the level of transparency the government provides into who it is monitoring and why, and whether law enforcement activities comply with the Constitution and our laws.”

Shamsi noted that kind of transparency has been sorely lacking to date.

“The FBI has sought to mask its surveillance activities in response to open records requests, but we have disturbing evidence that it is targeting Americans for investigation based on their race, religion or beliefs, which invites unconstitutional profiling.”

As part of the plan, the government will share information about violent threats and be more responsive to complaints from communities about government actions. Shamsi said those steps were essential for the program to succeed.

“Americans are now being tracked by law enforcement officials nationwide on the basis of ‘suspicious activity,’ an Orwellian practice that could lead to discriminatory surveillance and the invasion of privacy rights,” she said. “Unless counter-terrorism investigations are based on alleged wrongdoing and not thoughts, beliefs and innocent activities, they will erode community trust while doing nothing to solve or deter crime.”

Michael German, a national security and privacy policy counsel at the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, said the strategy could have gone further.

“It makes welcome statements acknowledging that violence comes from many different segments of society, and that unfairly blaming or stigmatizing any particular group is harmful and counterproductive, but it unfortunately reinforces a false radicalization theory that suggests that extreme ideologies inexorably lead to violence,” said German, a former FBI agent.

“The difficult truth is that there is no terrorist profile and no discernable pattern or path to becoming a terrorist. Developing counter-terrorism policy based on a flawed theory that there is a direct path from extreme belief to terrorism is a recipe for failure and opens the door for abuse based on racial and ethnic bias and political considerations.”

German said the ACLU is “deeply concerned about the potential for government censorship of Internet content based on the strategy’s proposal for countering violent extremist propaganda.”

CNN.com: Obama: Feds to fight extremism with local partnerships

NPR.org: White House Unveils Counter-Extremism Plan

White House Strategy Paper

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