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DHS Should Focus on Criminal Activity, Not Beliefs

Hina Shamsi,
Director, ACLU National Security Project
Nusrat Choudhury,
Former Legal Director, ACLU of Illinois
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June 13, 2011

Last week, The Washington Post reported that for the last two years, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) intelligence gathering and analysis unit devoted to rightwing groups and militias has been “effectively eviscerated,” while reports on so-called Islamic extremism “got through without any major problems.”

The article raises serious concerns about DHS’s failure to address the real need for fact-based assessments of where threats to our security lie. An internal DHS study last year concluded that “a majority of the 86 major foiled and executed terrorist plots in the United States from 1999 to 2009 were unrelated to al-Qaeda and allied movements” (emphasis added) and warned, “Do not overlook other types of terrorist groups.” (It doesn’t get any clearer than that!)

Despite this recommendation, according to current and former DHS officials, the agency has cut back its intelligence analysis regarding non-Muslim terrorist groups after a 2009 report on “Rightwing Extremism,” which warned that the poor economy and President Obama’s election could stir “violent radicalization,” was withdrawn for fear that it would be seen as an attack on conservative ideologies.

DHS was right to withdraw the “Rightwing Extremism” report, which we’ve criticized for inappropriately focusing on the beliefs held by the targeted groups — anti-tax, anti-abortion and pro-gun activists — rather than on any suspected or actual illegal activity. The bottom line: the government shouldn’t be spying on any group simply because it holds unorthodox or even hostile beliefs — no matter whether those beliefs lie to the right or to the left. Instead, it should address the need for accurate and appropriately tailored intelligence reports describing criminal activity and true threats of violence from any group — regardless of ideology.

While it is important that DHS withhold intelligence reports that unfairly target right-wing groups because of their beliefs, the intelligence community must extend the same respect for civil liberties to American Muslims. Instead, intelligence and law enforcement operations are all-too-often based on a deeply flawed and unscientific theory of “homegrown terrorism” caused by the so-called “radicalization” of American Muslims. “Radicalization” is a code word for unconstitutional profiling based on religion.

As the ACLU has explained before, the government’s focus on American Muslim “radicalization” is based on a 2007 New York Police Department report that has been roundly and rightly criticized. The report claims, among other things, that growing a beard, wearing “traditional Islamic” clothing, performing daily Islamic prayers, or getting involved in activism on social or community issues are “signatures” that a person is heading down a path toward violent, terrorist action.

Yet, thousands of people grow beards, perform daily prayers, become active on social or community issues, or wear traditional Islamic clothing without ever taking a single step towards violent behavior. And the NYPD Report has been debunked for its methodological flaws, assumptions and biases.

Investigating individuals and groups simply because of their “extreme” or “radical” religious or political beliefs, or what their appearance suggests about their beliefs doesn’t make anyone safer — whether those beliefs are to oppose abortion or immigration or to show adherence to the faith of Islam.

Instead, law enforcement and intelligence resources must be directed toward violent and criminal behavior. That way, our government works to preserve both our security and our liberty — just as it should.

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