Posted by on February 28, 2013 in Blog

Yesterday, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) circulated a letter to her colleagues announcing her intention to introduce the “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Terrorism Act of 2013,” a bill that will require the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop training programs on counterterrorism and violent extremism in the US that are “consistent with our constitutional rights.” The legislation would also require “the Department’s Inspector General to review DHS-funded programs to ensure that they are not used to fund training and events that are inconsistent with national counterterrorism priorities and constitutional civil rights and civil liberties including prohibiting racial, ethnic, and religious profiling.” Additionally, the bill requires any state or local authority that wants to purchase or develop an independent training program to receive approval from the Department’s Chief Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Chief Privacy Officer.  

The letter further emphasized the need for the effective use of federal resources: “DHS funds should be used to support programs that target security threats. Resources should not be wasted to fund training programs that discriminate against members of a particular race, ethnicity, or religious group.”

Last year, we highlighted the controversy surrounding the revelation of the video “The Third Jihad,” which was reportedly used by the NYPD as part of a training program. The NYT report that released the revelations implied that the NYPD received the video from an employee at DHS. Citing the NYT report, AAI sent a letter to DHS requesting full disclosure of the Department’s connection to the anti-Islam video. In its response, DHS, formally denied any involvement: “DHS did not authorize the distribution of the video The Third Jihad, was not involved in its funding, and has not sanctioned its use as part of DHS training programs,” Tamara Kessler, Acting Officer at the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties wrote in a letter to AAI.         

There are also other examples of the ineffective use of federal resources and purported civil liberties violations by DHS’s counterterrorism programs. In 2011, Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) requested information from DHS on the federal funding of counterterrorism training programs following the release of a report that alleged DHS trainers espoused anti-Muslim views. “Media reports cite some of these self-appointed counterterrorism training experts as engaging in vitriolic diatribes and making assertions such as ‘Islam is a highly violent radical religion’ and that if someone has ‘different spellings of a name…That’s probable cause to take them in,’” Collins and Lieberman wrote, citing the story in the Washington Monthly. “These comments, of course, are neither factually accurate nor consistent with our nation’s fundamental values and are not made by adequately trained personnel. It appears, however, that some of these so-called experts have neither the academic nor operational background in the material about which they train.”

The Department of Homeland Security works with a broad range of partners on countering violent extremism (CVE). With respect to training initiatives, the DHS works with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to train hundreds of thousands of front line officers on “Suspicious Activities Reporting and CVE.” And through the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign the DHS launched in July 2010, the Department provides grants that directly support local law enforcement efforts to “understand, prepare for, and respond to terrorist pre-cursor activity.” However, the Department’s campaign is criticized by human rights and civil rights groups alleging that the initiative has given rise to racial profiling. “Often times these reports of suspicious activities are not made due to the activity itself; rather, the reports are tied to the person conducting the activity. In the case of some of these reports, it was not that people on a place were discussing a safe place to sit in the event of a crash or that people were photographing landmarks, but that ‘Middle Eastern-looking’ people or people ‘wearing Muslim garb’ were engaging in these activities, The Rights Working Group notes in their testimony to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Hearing on “Ten Years After 9/11: Are We Safer?”

Finally, DHS has been criticized for the lack of effectiveness of its fusion centers. In October 2012, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report criticizing DHS’s fusion centers by stating that the centers have “not yielded significant useful information to support federal counterterrorism intelligence efforts.” The two-year bipartisan investigation found that “Department of Homeland Security efforts to engage state and local intelligence ‘fusion centers’ has [sic] not yielded significant useful information to support federal counterterrorism intelligence efforts.” In fact, the Senate report slammed the initiative for hampering the civil liberties and civil rights of Americans. “It’s troubling that the very ‘fusion’ centers that were designed to share information in a post-9/11 world have become part of the problem. Instead of strengthening our counterterrorism efforts, they have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties,” said Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), the Subcommittee’s ranking member who initiated the investigation.       

Rep. Clarke, a member of the House Homeland Security, should be applauded for her leadership on civil liberties issues. Her bill is a very positive step, that if enacted would ensure that homeland security grants are used appropriately and would ensure that resources are not wasted and are not used to fund any counterterrorism trainings or programs that give rise to racial, ethnic, or religious profiling.  

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