The government has long infringed on Americans’ fundamental rights and liberties under the guise of national security.
Last year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced new measures to address domestic violent extremism, with a focus on violent white supremacy. It established a Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships (“CP3”) and a domestic terrorism branch within the Office of Intelligence and Analysis. In its press statement, DHS described this effort as a “whole-of-society” approach, including collaboration across every level of government, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and communities.
The ACLU has previously explained that in responsibly addressing white supremacist violence, policymakers need to ensure that the broad powers federal agencies already have (or claim to have) do not violate people’s civil rights, civil liberties, or privacy, as they often have in the past. For example, the Obama administration launched a program that cast unwarranted suspicion on Muslims by utilizing a deeply flawed approach: it called on social service providers and community members to identify potentially “extremist” individuals based on vague and broad criteria that encompassed lawful speech and association. They targeted young people and schools, giving recommendations to schools on how to police for signs of radicalization, all of which undermined young people’s ability to express themselves and encouraged teachers and other students to view their peers as inherently suspicious. Under the guise of community outreach, the Federal Bureau of Investigations also targeted mosques for intelligence gathering and pressured law-abiding American Muslims to become informants against their own communities.
These programs flagged innocent behavior — such as religiosity, political activism, and mistrust of law enforcement — as indicators of radicalization. The Trump administration followed this model and created the Office of Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention, raising the same acute concerns for communities of color and immigrants who were targets of that administration’s xenophobic and racist policies.
DHS’s latest effort appears to use similar frameworks and methods such as “threat assessments” intended to detect “risk factors for radicalization to violence,” without clear guidelines, definitions, or safeguards to protect civil rights and civil liberties.
The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking information about this new program. We want to know DHS’s plan to safeguard civil liberties, civil rights, and privacy, or whether it even has one. But we’ve received no information. So we filed this lawsuit to compel DHS to respond to our FOIA request.