Posted on June 12, 2013 in Countdown

They're Finally Tracking Anti-Arab Hate Crimes

We have some good news to report: after years of waiting, the FBI will now start tracking hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindus, and Arab Americans. Last week, the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Advisory Policy Board (APB) announced that it will recommend to FBI Director Robert Mueller that categories for hate crimes targeting the three communities be added to the FBI’s Hate Crime Incident Report form, 1-699. Took them long enough! With the addition of the category for hate crimes targeting Arab Americans, federal law enforcement will be better prepared and equipped to identify patterns of hate-inspired attacks. As a result, our communities will be safer. This is a win for the community, not only because of the desired outcome, but for the process of attaining it. In February and March, hundreds of Arab Americans responded to our action alerts, asking their elected officials to write letters to Director Mueller and Attorney General Eric Holder. Soon after, members of Congress began grilling Holder in committee meetings about his judgment on the matter. This episode illustrates the ability of our community to rally behind an important issue and get things done.

Putting SPOT on the Spot

You’ve heard of the SPOT program, right? Well, next time you go to the airport in just about any major city, remember this Countdown item. SPOT, which stands for Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques , is a behavioral detection program used by the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) to screen passengers boarding planes. It’s modeled on the Israeli screening method, and aims to identify "persons who pose or may pose potential transportation security risks by focusing on behaviors indicative of high levels of stress, fear, or deception.” Identifying indicators of a potential threat - sounds like an activity reserved for a relatively high-level intelligence analyst, right? Nope. Under SPOT, any designated TSA "Behavioral Detection Officer" can single you out for additional screening. So, does it work? The DHS Inspector General conducted an audit at the behest of Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) of the $1billion program. Here's a brief excerpt of that audit: "TSA cannot ensure that passengers at United States airports are screened objectively, show that the program is cost-effective, or reasonably justify the program’s expansion." Wow, pretty damning, huh? So why did Congress vote down Bennie Thompson's amendment to the DHS appropriations bill to defund SPOT? Simply put: politics. But don't worry, we're not going to let this baffling lack of political will go unchallenged. We've sent a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano asking her to terminate the program. Also, we're told that the Government Accountability Office is set to issue a report slamming the SPOT program. Hopefully, that report, coupled with the DHS's internal audit, will throw some more momentum behind our call to terminate the program. Stay tuned. 

The Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act of 2013

When Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which directed that the US embassy in Tel Aviv to move to Jerusalem, thus recognizing Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, they showed how out of touch they were with realities on the ground in Israel and Palestine. Anyone who follows the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and believes in a two state solution knows that without a viable agreement on Jerusalem, there can be no two state solution. Jerusalem is at the nexus of final status issues, and failure to come to agreement on how to divvy up Jerusalem is a key factor in the inability to achieve any sort of lasting, viable peace agreement. Every U.S. President knows this, and that’s why President Obama extended a waiver on the law another six months. See, even though it’s  politically expedient for Members of Congress to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided capital,” it simply isn’t something the US can support officially. But politics knows no bounds on this issue, and a new bill called The Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act of 2013 would eliminate the President’s waiver on the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, essentially forcing the US to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. You remember that ham-fisted voice vote at last year’s Democratic National Convention to amend the party platform and recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel? It didn’t turn out so well. Now, imagine if this bill (full disclosure: it’s unlikely to pass) gets through Congress. Multiply that by ten thousand, add some violence, and kiss the US’s already compromised legitimacy as a peace broker goodbye.

Egypt's Attack on Civil Society

Last week, an Egyptian judge sentenced in absentia 43 employees of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Egypt, including 19 Americans, to prison sentences and fines on charges of receiving foreign funding. Because the Americans are all outside of Egypt (the last one to leave the country, NDI’s Robert Becker, departed after the verdicts), they will not serve their prison sentences, but will be subject to arrest if they ever return to Egypt. The NGOs’ Egyptian staff members, however, aren’t so lucky. The verdicts come out of indictments filed in February, 2012, a period when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) ruled the country and grew increasingly angry with foreign NGOs that provided training and support to Egyptian political and civil society groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, a major irritant to the SCAF. In 2011, SCAF raided NGO offices and deported or detained their employees. The contrived case against the foreign NGOs provided a convenient distraction for the SCAF, playing on Egyptian conspiracy theories about Western influence over the country’s politics. In reality, of course, those indicted (a group which included three Arab Americans, two of which are AAI alumni Natasha Tynes and Sam Lahood) were not out to destroy Egypt, but rather dedicated Americans willing to move halfway around the world and work in very difficult conditions to help build Egypt’s democratic future. The verdicts, and the fact that the case continued after the SCAF was replaced by President Morsi, have led to calls on Capitol Hill to reexamine the aid relationship between the US and Egypt. Though cutting off aid might be counterproductive, these verdicts do not bode well for this vital relationship.

NSA Should Disappear PRISM

The story that has dominated the international news cycle for the past two weeks is the fallout from the leaks to the The Guardian and the The Washington Post revealing the incredible extent of the National Security Administration’s spying programs. The source of the leaks, Edward Snowden, asked The Guardian to reveal his identity and publish a video in which he explained that he revealed the programs out of a belief that Americans should understand the scope of federal surveillance. Snowden’s first leak revealed that major American telecommunications companies provide “metadata” (call logs, durations, etc...) to the NSA every day. If that wasn’t frightening enough, a second leak revealed that the NSA has agreements with most large tech companies that allow the government access to nearly every type of online communication. So, someone at the NSA could be reading that email you just sent or chuckling at that silly picture of your cat you just posted on Facebook. Though we see frightening possibilities for government overreach, polls show the American public to be less concerned. Perhaps some members of the intelligence community already knew that when they were reportedly chatting about making Snowden disappear. Despite all this, the NSA’s surveillance program known as PRISM, has widespread support in Congress, where everyone from Rep. Peter King (R-NY) to Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) lined up to call for Snowden’s swift prosecution. Only a few members, including Arab American Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), spoke up for Snowden. For the sake of our privacy, we hope voices like Amash’s carry the day on the Hill.  

DHS Appropriations Bill: Another Troubling Week

Another week, another troubling bill passed by the House of Representatives. This week, it was the appropriations bill funding the operations of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for fiscal 2014. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) proposed a successful amendment to the bill that seeks to overturn President Obama’s decision to halt deportations of DREAMers, children brought to this country illegally at a young age. Though Rep. King’s amendment will likely be stripped out of the law before final passage, its inclusion in the House version illustrates the depth of anti-immigrant sentiment in the House Republican caucus. Three more worthy amendments sadly failed. One would have gotten rid of a requirement that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detain a fixed number of suspected immigrants each night, instead giving them the flexibility to detain the number they see fit. An effort to strip funding for 287(g), a failed program that encourages profiling, and an amendment restricting the TSA’s SPOT program, also failed. We can take solace in the fact that most all of these will be removed as the House bill is combined with the Senate’s version, but it should be frightening that they passed the House in the first place.

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