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Soon, We'll All Be Radicals

Michael German,
Senior Policy Counsel, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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April 16, 2009

A series of leaked “intelligence” reports have caused quite a dust-up over the last several weeks. A Texas fusion center warned about a terrorist threat from “the international far Left,” the Department of Homeland Security and a Missouri fusion center warned of threats posed by right-wing ideologues, and a Virginia fusion center saw threats from across the political spectrum and called certain colleges and religious groups “nodes of radicalization.” These are all examples of domestic security gone wrong. The way for local police to secure their communities against real threats is to focus on criminal activities and the individuals involved in criminal activities.

If these “intelligence” reports described recent crimes and the people who perpetrated them, there would be little problem from a civil rights perspective, and it could actually be helpful to the average police officer. Instead, they have followed a “radicalization” theory popularized by the NYPD (PDF). That theory postulates that there is a “path” to terrorism that includes the adoption of certain beliefs, and political, religious, or social activism is viewed as another step toward violence. Actual empirical studies of terrorism conducted in the Netherlands and Britain refute this theory, but the idea that hard-to-find terrorists can be caught by spying on easy-to-find activists appears too hard to resist to U.S. law enforcement. This anti-scientific approach to counter-terrorism might explain the steady drop in terrorism prosecutions.

Even if First Amendment concerns are put aside, vague intelligence reports like these are entirely unhelpful to the street cop or agent. What could a cop reading the Virginia fusion center report do but start watching student groups? What could an agent reading the Missouri fusion center report do but start monitoring the above-ground anti-tax, anti-abortion and pro-gun activists? These are places you are unlikely to find the bad guys. Information about a suspicious arson, or the methods of an individual convicted of sending dangerous substances through the mail might actually arm a law enforcement officer with information he or she could use to solve crimes in their own areas. Focusing on ideas rather than crime, the latest bulletin from DHS cites an increase in “rhetoric,” yet doesn’t even mention reports that there was a dirty bomb found in an alleged white supremacist’s house in Maine last December. Learning what to look for in that situation might actually be useful to a cop. Threat reports that focus on ideology instead of criminal activity are threatening to civil liberties and a wholly ineffective use of federal security resources.

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