Monday, May 18, 2009

Homeland's Lexicon of "Extremism"

In May 2009, Homeland Security released -- and quickly retracted -- a "Domestic Extremism Lexicon," one in a series of reference aids designed to provide operational and intelligence advice to state, local, and regional fusion centers. This Lexicon is likely to increase suspicion and surveillance of activists from the right and left.

During facilitated workshops, Homeland Security (DHS) intelligence analysts developed definitions of a range of domestic political groupings using "open source" materials and unclassified information. The 11 pages of the latest Lexicon define:
  • animal rights extremism

  • antiabortion extremism

  • anti-immigration extremism

  • antitechnology extremism

  • anarchist extremism

  • black bloc

  • Black nationalism

  • Black power

  • Christian Identity

  • direct action

  • environmental extremism

  • green anarchism

  • hate groups

  • Jewish extremism

  • leftwing extremism

  • militia movement

  • neo-Nazis, and

  • racist skinheads
Just last month, a DHS report on the threat of rightwing extremism sparked an outcry across the blogosphere from political conservatives for suggesting that returning veterans could become terrorists. Now, according to Matthew Harwood of the Guardian, conservative websites are "apoplectic" about how "rightwing extremism" was described by DHS:
A movement of rightwing groups or individuals who can be broadly divided into those who are primarily hate-oriented, and those who are mainly anti-government and reject federal authority in favour of state or local authority. This term may also refer to rightwing extremist movements that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.
William Jasper at the New American wrote that "The 'definitions' provided in the lexicon are politically slanted to poison the law enforcement community against millions of Americans who might be called (and who might identify themselves as) political, social and religious 'conservatives.'"

Yes, but DHS is clearly not singling out rightwing views in its assault on free speech. Leftwing views are also suspect. Without reference to specific violent terrorist activity, the Lexicon vaguely defines "violent antiwar extremism" as
A movement of groups or individuals who advocate or engage in criminal activity and plot acts of violence and terrorism in an attempt to voice their opposition to U.S. involvement in war-related activities. They often target the military, seats of government power, and defense industry personnel, facilities, and activities.
Likewise, the "black bloc" is described as a collection of violent anarchists and anarchist affinity groups that band together for illegal acts of civil disturbance and use tactics that destroy property or strain law enforcement resources."

What are the implications of DHS analysts developing such an ideologically charged "reference aid" and pushing it out to state agencies?
1. Homeland Security apparently operates under a broad definition of what constitutes a threat to national security. The agency's emphasis on studying low intensity threats such as civil disturbance, property damage, and economic harm may risk missing large-scale, serious threats.

2. By focusing on political speech, Homeland Security may not only misperceive threats, but also chill freedom of speech and press. The Lexicon defines "alternative media" as a "forum for interpretations of events and issues that differ radically from those presented in mass media products and outlets." By mining the alternative media to analyze the opinions and tactics of dissenters, the government tells people who challenge government policies and journalists who report on them: "We are watching you."

3. Without adequate oversight and a narrow definition of its mission, DHS officials have too much latitude to collect political intelligence.

4. In the past, the FBI used the pretext of foreign interference to justify surveillance and disruption of indigenous political movements. Today, Homeland Security has dropped all pretense of concern for foreign interference. "Homegrown extremism" is the new buzzword to justify spying on alleged "subversives."
In order to guarantee the constitutional rights of all Americans, whether on the Left or Right, we need to hold all domestic security agencies to a requirement of evidence of criminal activity before any kind of investigation can be launched. Without the safeguard of a "criminal predicate," DHS can continue to urge local and state police and fusion centers to conduct political witch-hunts.