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Counter-extremism or ethnic profiling? Congress can’t decide

If the United States wants to stop extremist recruiting, it’s got to come up with a better message — or at least that is the rationale the White House has been pushing now for several years.

But the summits and strategies to advance programs to counter violent extremism haven’t done enough, many lawmakers and former administration officials say. That’s why the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee is pushing for a new office at the Department of Homeland Security to counter homegrown violent extremism. It would be funded at $10 million annually for four years.

Or, as some of its critics complain, taxpayers would pay $10 million a year to formalize racial profiling in the highest echelons of government.

Several civil rights, Muslim, and Arab-American organizations have spoken out against the measure, sponsored by House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and passed out of that committee Wednesday evening by voice vote.

Critics argue the attempt to centralize anti-extremist messaging in the government will only give U.S. officials license to pressure, harass and coerce minorities, fanning the flames of racial and ethnic tensions instead of effectively stemming the tide of young people lured to commit violent crimes in the name of a radical ideology.

And some Democrats warn such an office could be too fully focused on counteracting Islamic extremism, instead of containing racial hate crimes, cartel-fueled violence, and other forms of domestic terror that have killed more Americans in the years since Sept. 11.

Supporters, starting with McCaul, have insisted that the measure isn’t intended to single out any particular community or credo in its quest to prevent ideological crimes from taking place.

“Both international and domestic groups are seeking to radicalize our citizens,” he said at a hearing Wednesday, nodding to the recent killing of nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., as inspiration for the timing of measure. “We cannot bow down in the face of terror and we must refuse to live at the mercy of fanatics.”

McCaul repeatedly stressed that his bill was concerned with countering any extremist ideology that could seduce Americans to join a foreign terrorist organization, commit a hate crime or becoming otherwise radicalized.

But it was clear Wednesday that some of his Republicans were primarily concerned with one form of radicalization above all others: the Islamic kind.

“We want to deal with violent extremism wherever it comes from. But there is a prioritization of scale,” said Rep. Scott Perry (R-Penn.), one of several Republicans to grill witnesses about the particular threats that homegrown Islamic terrorism posed. Perry offered statistics and metaphors to suggest that turning the country’s primary focus to other forms of domestic terrorism at a time when Islamic State recruiters were on the march was like worrying about fixing your roof when your house is on fire.

A spate of recent reports have documented how Americans are becoming radicalized via Internet-based social media, and in the worst cases, going overseas to join radical terrorist groups like the Islamic State. The panic has put pressure on lawmakers to respond — but the type of response in McCaul’s bill, it appears, is not quite what experts advocate.

“You can’t just do it from government, it has to be the communities themselves,” Farah Pandith, who was the State Department’s first special representative to Muslim communities, told the Homeland Security committee in testimony Wednesday, stressing that better funding for more grassroots efforts was necessary and suggesting that the government could, at best, facilitate a community-derived approach to counteract extremism. The bill that emerged from the committee included an amendment from Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) to provide grants to non-government organizations to counter violent extremism and domestic terrorism locally.

But to date, such government programs intended to support activities close to the ground have been controversial. There are already pilot programs in three communities — Boston, Los Angeles, and the Twin Cities — to see if structured measures countering violent extremism, or CVE, can work.

But such programs have set off civil liberties advocates in local communities as well. In Minnesota, for example, where the CVE programming is focused on the Somali community, Somalis expressed distrust and wariness that the authorities tasked with running it wouldn’t actually just use the CVE activities to unfairly profile and entrap locals.

Some Democrats were also skeptical that McCaul’s proposal would actually do much to advance the cause of counter-extremism.

“I don’t want us to just set another bureaucracy up and give it some money,” Homeland Security ranking member Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said.

McCaul acknowledged that a grassroots-first approach would be ideal, but argued that a counter-narrative to extremist recruiting efforts “has to be led by somebody,” such as his proposed new office.

“Time is not on our side,” McCaul said, claiming that the Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson had indicated his support for the measure during a recent closed-door hearing.

The Department of Homeland Security was noticeably absent at Wednesday’s hearing — and the two parties couldn’t even agree on whether there was actually support for a new structural approach for handling CVE activities such as McCaul’s.

“I was at that same classified hearing and obviously we heard two different things,” Thompson retorted.

The measure has not yet been scheduled for a vote in the full House.