Thursday, April 16, 2009

Government Sets Sights on Extremists

        Hot Air Leads to Violence?  Homeland Security apparently thinks so.  The Department of Homeland Security recently warned law enforcement that disenchanted, angry Americans are like kernels of corn under heat, ready to pop at any time.  Both threats and instances of Right-wing violence has definitely increased in response to the election of Barack Obama, but Homeland Security's report is off the mark.  It targets "extremist thought" as the problem.  When government conflates ideology with violent action, all free speech - whether from the Left or Right - is at risk.  We need to build a progressive movement that channels peoples' anger to challenge the causes of social injustices, while exposing the rightwing's false populism.  Supporting surveillance of right-wing groups only gives government license to repress the Left, as well.

        Homeland Security's recent report simplistically conflates ill-defined “extremist” viewpoints with violent criminal activity.  It is completely insensitive to free speech guarantees.  The government urges law enforcement to exercise “intense scrutiny” of groups espousing many different agendas.  Tax protestors, anti-immigrant activists, white supremacists, militias, and “One World Government Extremists” all garner suspicion. 

(you can download a copy of the report here)

        Urging police to study and observe people based on their beliefs chills everyone’s freedom of speech and association.  Under the U.S. Constitution, people are free to espouse any  beliefs and recruit people to organize, short of threatening imminent acts of violence.  (See, e.g., Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969))  This strategy targets the beliefs and ideological motivations of mobilized citizens, rather than suspected criminal activity.  “Threats from white supremacist and violent antigovernment groups during 2009 have been largely rhetorical and have not indicated plans to carry out violent acts,” says the Homeland Security report, making it clear that what is being targeted here is speech.

        It would be a mistake for critics to think that the Obama administration is singling out the Right.  For the past eight years, Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, FBI, and other agencies have been intimidating and spying on anti-war, globalization, and environmental activists.  There is no evidence of a sea change under Obama, the domestic security apparatus continues to do so.  For example, in January 2009, Homeland Security warned “Leftwing Extremists Likely to Increase Use of Cyber Attacks over the Coming Decade.”  That report defined "leftwing extremists" as groups or individuals who embrace radical elements of the anarchist, animal rights, or environmental movements and are often willing to violate the law to achieve their objectives. It lumped together the Ruckus Society and Recreate 68 with the Animal Defense League, Earth First!, and other groups whose activities have never been linked to a single attack on human life.   Andrea Tantaros at the FOX Forum blog asked,  

where was the DHS when Code Pink was trying to handcuff former administration officials or when leftist groups like ACORN were slashing tires, intimidating voters and vandalizing campaign headquarters (not to mention bullying banks to give bad loans to people who couldn’t afford them)?

Homeland Security was right where you would expect them to be.  Denver Police slammed a Code Pink activist to the ground at a DNC protest this Summer.  Police and federal agents raided the residences of RNC protestors before any protests took place at the Republican Convention in St. Paul.   It is good news that some on the Right are waking up to the fact that the "war on terror" is being manipulated to justify infringements on civil liberties.  Unfortunately, this newfound concern appears to have less to do with commitment to defend the civil and political rights of all U.S. residents, than with concern that right-wing causes might be repressed under the current administration.  Let not progressives follow the same unprincipled and short-sighted path.  However tempting it may be to compromise principles for political advantage, we should remember how infrequently it is we live under a federal administration not overtly hostile to the Left.  To celebrate DHS' new concern about the right is to revel in historical amnesia.

        Homeland Security’s warning not only threatens civil liberties, but it's also bad counter-terrorism.  The report singles out “a parent’s unemployment” as a possible marker for “the formation of right wing extremist beliefs.”  Given the explosion in the ranks of the unemployed, how is this possibly an effective strategy for preventing terrorism?   

        This is a futile and wasteful approach to policing terrorism.  When police make decisions about resources and staffing, they should not focus on the distant causes of terrorism, such as family upbringing or the content of literature.  Police should focus on operational factors such as targets, weapons, tools, and facilitating conditions – all of which are accessible to intervention – in order to limit opportunities for terrorist action and planning.  Homeland Security’s emphasis on the intricacies of “extremist” ideology takes resources away from what really counts and casts too many under suspicion of terrorism.  The Obama Administration has abandoned use of the phrase "war on terror."  That is a good start, but substance is what matters most.  They must now abandon the domestic "war on terror" ideology of "violent radicalization" that, like earlier repressive witch hunts, violate our rights with the promise of protecting them.

Special thanks to Tarso Ramos of Political Research Associates for his assistance on this blog entry!

"Our freedom of speech is freedom or death

We go to fight the powers that be."

                  - Public Enemy, "Fight the Power

Monday, April 13, 2009

Thought Police Patrol Virginia

If the Virginia Fusion Center (VFC) isn't careful, people might think its intelligence analysts are America's thought police. Take a look at its 2009 Threat Assessment, which talks about "subversive thought" as a marker for violent terrorism and identifies "university based student groups as a radicalization node for almost every type of extremist group." (pp. 9, 17). From anarchists to white supremacists, the fusion center analysts are either bored without actual threats to deal with or determined to prove that a web of homegrown stealth jihadists and green anarchists endanger Virginians' safety.

The 215-page threat assessment popped up on the website, this month. Labeled "Law Enforcement Sensitive," it was only meant to be viewed by law enforcement, Department of Defense, and intelligence analysts. According to the fusion center, the terrorism trends of greatest concern for 2009 include terrorism tradecraft, recruitment and radicalization, terrorist use of technology, and terrorism financing. (p. 4)

The emphasis of the report is the "Homegrown" threat. My favorite morsel references how Muslim Brotherhood members cross-populate into different Islamic organizations and attempt to obtain leadership roles:

Subject with ties to Muslim Brotherhood and the Muslim Student Association, appointed to a state immigration committee, subsequently resigned after public accusation of terrorism ties (TIPS C070773); The Muslim American Society, a group linked to the MB, used Boy and Girl Scout troops in 2006 as part of a massive get-out-the-vote campaign targeting Muslim voters in Virginia and elsewhere (Investigative Project on Terrorism). (p. 41, fn. p)

There you have it. A voter participation program and a government appointee dropping out after allegations of terrorism. Whether anyone ever proved that the appointee was a member of Muslim Brotherhood who had ties to terrorism, the report does not say. And self-proclaimed counter-terror expert, Steve Emerson, was the government's source for claims that the get-out-the-vote campaign had terrorist ties. Emerson, of course,is "repeatedly criticized for producing faulty analyses and having an anti-Islamic agenda."

The assessment hones in on domestic groups as a more significant threat than foreign ones on the grounds that there numbers are growing as are the number of incidents. (p. 43) Indeed, the fusion center examined many groups, including a wide swath of white supremacist organizations, including: Creativity Movement, American Resistance, National Socialist Movement, Aryan Nations, Vinlanders Social Club, and the American National Socialist Workers Party. In spite of the vast information in the report about the danger presented by militia and anti-abortion extremists, the Executive Summary emphasizes the Islamic threat (and seemingly endorses ethnic profiling). Ethnic diversity in itself becomes the problem:
All three of these regions [northern Virginia, central Virginia, and Hampton roads] feature ethnically diverse populations with cultural ties to the Middle East, the horn of Africa, Southeast Asia, and other areas heavily impacted by terrorist activities. While the vast majority of these individuals are law-abiding, this ethnic diversity also affords terrorist operatives the opportunity to assimilate easily into society, without arousing suspicion. Virginia's network of colleges and universities also represent a potential avenue of entry for terrorist operatives and a possible forum for recruitment of sympathizers. (pp. 5-6).
The fusion center also puts avowed hate groups on the same level as environmental activists and anarchists. Consider the following statement:
2008 was an active year for the environmental extremists protesting against energy companies in Virginia. The presidential campaign also generated increased chatter among militia and right wing extremists and resulted in a National Socialist Magazine cover mock-up suggesting the assassination of then Senator Obama. (p. 43)
Seriously? Promoting the idea of assassinating the president is on par with an active year for environmental protests?

Equally troubling is the emphasis on radical thought, rather than criminal activity. Even Harry Truman had the grace to say, "In a free country, we punish men for the crimes they commit but never for the opinions they have." But consider this analysis of the As-Sabiqun Islamic Movement. As-Sabiqun (AS) is a Washington, DC-based group that stresses unity among Islamic organizations with the ultimate goal of establishing a modern Islamic state that has publicly voiced support for Shia movements and organizations including Hizballah and the 1979 Iranian Revolution (which overthrew a dictator). Its recent activities include anti-war rallies, prison outreach, and fundraising (p. 53).

Although the group has shied away from criminal activities, AS has promoted radical movements, expressed anti-Semitic views, and may be a conduit for Islamic extremists to pass through on their way to more militant groups. (p. 53)
The Virginia Fusion Center is not saying that As-Sabiqun itself is a terror threat because its activities are legal and legitimate -- anti-war rallies, prison outreach, and such. Political Research Associates and Liberty Beat have no tolerance for anti-Semitic views of any group, but it is troubling that AS comes under scrutiny because members may later go on to more militant groups. What other organizations does law enforcement suspect of being "conduits"?

In many cases, the fusion center reports on the legal, protected activities of radical groups. Literature distribution, student recruitment, internet usage, rallies, demonstrations, dumpster diving, train hopping, and activist training camps are mentioned. We read of "Anarchist Extremists'" public disturbances, conferences, and protests, including conferences in November 2007 and January 2008. The activists' "public disturbance" did not target the government, however. They confronted suspected white supremacists in Harrisonburg. (p.44, fn. r, s) Oh, the horror.

According to the fusion center, the New African Black Panther Party’s newsletter “Fed-Up” “catalogues a broad spectrum of alleged prisoner abuses and allegations of prison system corruption and features inflammatory rhetoric to rally prisoners and their associates on the outside to unite against law enforcement and the correctional system.” (p. 50). God forbid. Fusion Center analysts found reference to Virginia locales in an edition of Fed-Up found at the website of the Thomas Merton Center, a pacifist organization. (p.50, n. cc)

When it comes to current threats of terrorist activity, the 2009 Virginia Fusion Center threat assessment is weak on details. "Information of criminal and suspicious incidents is infrequent and inconsistent" in the Commonwealth. (p. 77) Most of the suspicious activity reported by citizens in the context of technology appears to be "spam related text messages or Nigerian style email scams." (p. 84) Of five reported hacking incidents, two email threats to university networks were sent by the hate group Army of God. (p. 84)

The fusion center's threat assessment is problematic because it conflates violent and criminal action with a wide range of ill-defined anti-government and political thought (no matter how racist some of it may be). After dealing with the threat of international terrorism for a mere 16 pages, it goes on and on to paint a picture of an ubiquitous, radical Islamic threat. "Clusters of radicalized local Muslims" are invoked as the boogeymen behind "unresolved suspicious incidents" like surveying, photographing, or videotaping critical infrastructure to include bridges, tunnels, military and government facilities and airports, although none "have currently been linked to terrorist activity." (p. 52, fn. ee)

This assessment also defines "Anarchist extremists" as an anti-government movement which rejects governmental rule and police authority, and advocates violent means to overthrow social, political and economic hierarchies. The inclusion of such a group in an official terror threat assessment -- undoubtedly by analysts from Homeland Security and the FBI, including state employees who all come together at the fusion center's suburban Richmond compound -- shows that the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act (HR1955) is alive in the minds of domestic intelligence. The thought police are on patrol. Everyone interested in knowing how your Homeland Security dollars are being spent should read this report. And they might ask whether Fusion Centers set their sights on "subversion" to find real threats or to justify the Fusion Center's continued existence.

"Constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press
do not permit a State to forbid or regulate advocacy of the use
of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is
directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action
and is likely to incite or produce such action."

- Brandenburg v. Ohio (U.S. Supreme Court, 1969)

Monday, April 6, 2009

Getting the Facts on Guantanamo Detainees

According to a Rasmussen Reports poll released on April 3, 2009, 75 percent of voters say that safety is more important than fairness in determining what countries the US government sends freed Guantanamo inmates.  While some element of N.I.M.B.Y. thinking is likely at work, this figure reflects misinformation about detainees at Guantanamo and the high degree of indiscriminate fear drummed up by the government.  Such fear has led to public acceptance for a wide range of domestic intelligence policies that undermine civil liberties.

In the poll, 75 percent say that Guantanamo inmates should not be released in this country.  President Obama's intelligence director, Dennis Blair, stated last week that some inmates may be released into the United States.  Based upon the government's own figures about those held at Guantanamo, safety will not be jeopardized, unless conditions of confinement and torture have made inmates more dangerous than when they entered.

It seems like an opportune time to recollect 2007's Seton Hall Report, which found that 92 percent of the people at Guanatanamo were not al Qaeda fighters.  According to Seton Hall's analysis of government data, Guantanamo does not contain the "worst of the worst."  Military tribunals have found that fifty-five percent of the detainees are not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the U.S. or its coalition allies.  Only 8 percent of the detainees were characterized by Uncle Sam as al Qaeda fighters.  Of the remaining detainees, 40 percent have no definitive connection with al Qaeda at all and 18 percent have no definitive affiliation with either al Qaeda or the Taliban.  In addition, only 5 percent of the detainees were captured by United States forces.

Based on Department of Defense data, the 11 detainees who swore an oath to Osama Bin Laden are only a tiny fraction of the total number of detainees at Guanatanamo.   Of the Taliban detainees, none seem to be people responsible for actually running the country.  Many were involved with the Taliban unwillingly as conscripts or otherwise.  Hundreds of detainees pose no determined threat to the United States, but that did not prevent us from confining people 23 hours a day, subjecting them to temperature extremes and sleep deprivation for seven years.  Those who have fought against the United States or plotted terrorism should be tried in federal court, like those who bombed the WTC in 1993.

As with too many facets of America's counter-terrorism policies, hyperbole, fear, and fiction drive public acceptance.  The Obama administration would be well-advised to give the people all the facts about who is being held at Guantanamo, where they came from, and how long they've been there, in keeping with his pledge for greater transparency.  Only with such facts will public perceptions change.

"Rubin Carter was falsely tried.
The crime was murder "one," guess who testified?
Bello and Bradley and they both baldly lied
And the newspapers, they all went along for the ride.
How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool's hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn't help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land

Where justice is a game.

Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise
While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell
An innocent man in a living hell.
That's the story of the Hurricane,
But it won't be over till they clear his name
And give him back the time he's done.
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world."

- Bob Dylan and  Jacques Levy "Hurricane"  

(though, to be sure, Hurricane Carter at least got a trial)