Brennan Center analysis reveals CVE worsening under Trump

Posted by Kai Wiggins on June 19, 2018 in Blog

Last Friday, the Brennan Center for Justice released fresh analysis into the state of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) under the Trump Administration. Researchers focused specifically on the recipients of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Countering Violent Extremism Grant Program, which was created by an act of Congress in December 2015. In June 2017, the DHS Office for Community Partnerships awarded $10 million “to 26 local law enforcement and community organizations.” According to the Department, the grant program is designed to integrate community partnerships into the government’s terrorism prevention strategy:

"These grants will help communities identify and counter terrorist recruitment and radicalization, including deterring individuals before they engage in criminal behavior or terrorist plotting. Among other activities, these DHS investments will help foster counter narratives to push back against terrorist messaging and will assist local law enforcement in building the trust needed to intervene in time to keep young people from going down the path toward violence."

Advocates have criticized CVE since the program’s implementation under the Obama Administration, arguing that it relies on a flawed framework of “radicalization” to justify disproportionate targeting of certain communities at the expense of constitutional rights. The Brennan Center has published comprehensive reports both deconstructing radicalization and discrediting CVE. Along with Bush-era policies such as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which required certain nonimmigrant men from predominantly Arab and Muslim-majority countries to register with the U.S. government, or the misuse of surveillance authorities under Executive Order 12333, Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, and Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, CVE perpetuates a damaging narrative of securitization that implicates Arab American, American Muslim, and South Asian American communities in particular.  

Despite early reports suggesting the contrary, the Trump Administration never renamed CVE to “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.” (In some respects, this would have been a more fitting designation, given the program’s history under the Obama Administration of outsize and discriminatory focus on American Muslim communities.) The administration did, however, freeze all funding to the CVE Grant Program, which stalled $10 million in grants allocated to 31 recipients, including local governments, universities, and nonprofit organizations, during President Obama’s final days in office. On June 23, 2017, the Trump Administration released a revised list of 26 recipients, removing several organizations from the original list that allegedly focused on “right-wing and white supremacist violence.” This revised list is the subject of the Brennan Center’s recent analysis.

According to the Brennan Center, at least 85 percent of the CVE grant programs “explicitly target” Muslims and other minority groups. This targeting is predicated on the assumption of a causal relationship between experiences of isolation or discrimination and the adoption of extreme ideologies, and that “radicalization” is more prevalent in diverse communities. Supporters of this view hold that people who possess extreme ideologies are more likely to commit acts of violence. Therefore, certain individuals or communities pose greater threats to national security. As demonstrated through empirical research, extremism is not a sufficient or necessary condition for violence. Regardless, it appears that a majority of the grant recipients have advanced this flawed framework to the detriment of Arab American, American Muslim, and other minority communities.

For example, the Denver Police Department received $481,313 to support a training program for 240 police officers to “recognize and analyze unspecified ‘behaviors and indicators of violent extremism,’ and to partner with community organizations to intervene.” According to the Brennan Center, the program targets disenfranchised or isolated communities in Denver, including ethnic/religious minorities, refugee communities, LGBTQ communities, and Black Lives Matter activists, who are supposedly at risk of becoming violent extremists on account of their lived experience. The initial grant proposal does not consider the privacy or civil liberties implications of such an initiative, but does suggest the department’s efforts in gang reduction provide “a solid framework for building a similarly effective CVE program.”

With respect to privacy and civil liberties, the Brennan Center found that only 12 of the 26 successful grant proposals even raise the issue of constitutional protections, much less identify concrete safeguards to ensure their defense. Along with the Denver Police Department’s proposal, an additional 11 grant proposals invoke gang reduction. Advocates should be concerned about any comparison between countering violent extremism and gang reduction, especially given the advent of predictive analytics, or machine learning, within the criminal justice system. Historically, gang reduction programs have targeted minority communities. Recent technological advancements have enabled policing via algorithm, and departments are now using machine learning, based on historically biased criminal justice data, to identify potential “at-risk” persons for targeted interventions. What results is a reliance on algorithms that appear objective but are in fact embedded with bias, leading to further criminalization of certain communities.

Returning to the analysis, the Brennan Center also found that in revising the list of CVE Grant Program recipients, the amount of money directed toward law enforcement entities nearly tripled, “opening the door to increased intelligence gathering under the guise of community-based programs.”

In conclusion, the Brennan Center’s findings demonstrate that under the Trump Administration, CVE has pivoted even more toward American Muslims and other minority communities while ratcheting the involvement of law enforcement. These developments suggest the Trump Administration has exacerbated the program’s historical asymmetries while promoting increased police intervention. The Brennan Center notes that a majority of the CVE grant programs explicitly target Muslims and other minority communities “[d]espite the prevalence of high-profile mass-killings by white perpetrators.” This is an important observation, as it denotes the anti-Muslim sentiment and other forms of prejudice that characterize the debate around national security and public safety. The logical response, however, is not an extension of CVE programs to additional communities. That a majority of CVE programs excessively target certain communities should undercut the argument for continued funding, not strengthen the argument for even more.