Don't Even Think About It: Enter The Thought Police

Published on
Mother Jones

Don't Even Think About It: Enter The Thought Police

Perhaps no campaign tactic is more effective than fearmongering, and in the current presidential race the sum of all fears, once again, is radical Islamic terrorists-or "jihadists," to use the now-ubiquitous term. On the Republican side, it's a pissing match over who can look toughest against this shadowy enemy, with John McCain running ads showing masked Islamic gunmen, while Mitt Romney spouts the old neocon warning about forces that want to "unite the world under a single jihadist caliphate." Although the Democrats' rhetoric is more restrained, Hillary Clinton didn't hesitate to suggest that the new president might quickly face another terrorist attack on American soil, as part of her quest to convince voters they need her cool-headed experience.

Largely ignored by the mainstream candidates-as well as the mainstream media-are the latest efforts to bring the fear home by targeting "homegrown terrorism"-another new catchphrase. Only liberal Democrat Dennis Kucinich and libertarian Republican Ron Paul have warned that in the name of stopping domestic terrorist plots before they happen, Congress is in the midst of passing legislation aimed not at actual hate crimes or even terrorist conspiracies, but at talking, Web surfing, or even thinking about jihadism or other "extremist belief systems." Last October, a piece of legislation called the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007 sailed through the House with near-universal bipartisan support; it is likely to reach the floor of the Senate early this year and appears certain to be signed into law.

Meanwhile, a report released by the New York City Police Department's intelligence division has been warmly received in Washington and widely distributed to law enforcement officials and seems sure to influence national policy. "Radicalization in the West and the Homegrown Threat" details how not only committed terrorists but potential jihadists think, what they talk about, and where they meet. The report's apparent goal is to increase surveillance on constitutionally protected activities. Already, members of the New York City Fire Department have been enlisted by Homeland Security to be on the lookout for signs of possible terrorist activity whenever they enter people's homes and to share this "intelligence" with other agencies.

Both the legislation and the report are presented as reasonable, rational responses to the threat of terrorism from domestic "extremist" groups and are framed not as plans for action but as efforts to "study" and "understand" the roots of homegrown terrorism. Both promote precisely the kind of broad approach-targeting beliefs rather than actions, assuming that "radicalization" leads to violence, defining terms loosely and casting a wide net-that has been used in the past by government authorities to monitor and disrupt legitimate dissent as well as illegal plots.

The primary sponsor of the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act is Jane Harman, chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security's Subcommittee on Intelligence. Harman made a point of introducing the legislation on April 19, the 12th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, saying it was "aimed at ensuring such an attack never happens again." But it was clear from the start that the bill was not aimed at white supremacists or anti-government militias. In announcing the bill, Harman also cited a 2005 plot in her Southern California district, targeting "military bases and recruiting stations, the Israeli Consulate, synagogues filled with worshipers on Jewish holy days, and the El Al ticket counter at LAX"-a plot that was foiled when a local police detective spotted "jihadist extremist material" in the apartment of a robbery suspect.

The danger posed by American jihadists remains relatively small-both in comparison to domestic threats in Europe and to the threat of attacks on the United States from abroad. The latest National Intelligence Estimate on "The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland," released in July 2007, clearly stated that Al Qaeda "is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat" to the United States. In fact, the report found that "the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability" from its safe haven in Pakistan, and that the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq has helped it raise resources and "recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks." Far down in its threat assessment, the NIE notes that "the radical and violent segment of the West's Muslim population is expanding, including in the United States," but also finds that "this internal Muslim terrorist threat is not likely to be as severe as it is in Europe."

Nonetheless, a few thwarted conspiracies are more than enough to float a bill like this. After a couple of hearings-"" target="new">described by OMB Watch as "primarily one-sided, with the bulk of the witnesses representing law enforcement or federal agencies"-the bill went to the House floor, where it was it passed with only six members voting against it-three Democrats and three Republicans. (Twenty-two others were absent.) Currently, a nearly identical version of the bill awaits a vote in the Senate's Committee on Homeland Security, where it has a supporter in chair Joseph Lieberman. Committee member Barack Obama has gone on record as being undecided on the bill (after an earlier email to constituents that seemed to indicate support)-but no presidential candidate is likely to cast a vote that could be seen as soft on terrorism.

The legislation would create a National Commission on the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism composed of 10 members whose vaguely defined job would be to "examine and report upon the facts and causes of violent radicalization, homegrown terrorism, and ideologically based violence," and to "build upon and bring together the work of other entities" including various federal, state, and local agencies, academics, and foreign governments. The commission is charged with issuing a report after 18 months. It also directs the Secretary of Homeland Security to set up a center to study "violent radicalization and homegrown terrorism" at a U.S. university, and to "conduct a survey" of what other countries are doing to prevent homegrown terrorism.

On the surface it looks harmless enough, except perhaps as a source of potential pork. California's Dana Rohrabacher, one of three Republicans to oppose the bill, told Congressional Quarterly that he saw the creation of the commission as "the [worst] type of posturing. Is spending $20 million so people can talk more and pay for their hotel rooms and expenses really going to solve anything? I don't think so."

On the Democratic side, however, the legislation's three nay votes included Kucinich, who refers to it as the "thought-crimes bill." At campaign stops in New Hampshire, Kucinich cited the bill as yet another sign of government intervention in civil liberties. Earlier in his campaign, he said it "sets the stage for further criminalization of protest."

The bill raises the potential for government encroachments on civil rights in part through the way it defines some basic terms. The text of the bill says that "the term 'violent radicalization' means the process of adopting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious, or social change." It gives no clue as to what would qualify, under this law, as an "extremist belief system," leaving this open to broad interpretation according to the prevailing political winds.

In addition, simply by designating the "process of adopting or promoting" belief systems as a target for government concern or control, the bill moves into dangerous territory. The director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office, Caroline Fredrickson, said in a statement on the bill, "Law enforcement should focus on action, not thought. We need to worry about the people who are committing crimes rather than those who harbor beliefs that the government may consider to be extreme."

The United States already has ample federal and state laws against violence of all kinds, and against conspiracy to commit violence. Participants in the handful of "homegrown terrorist" plots that have hatched since 9/11 are being prosecuted under these existing statutes. Certain kinds of direct incitement to violence are already illegal, as well, but within strict limits.

Robert Peck of the Center for Constitutional Litigation points out that some of the most significant First Amendment battles have been fought over precisely when "speech transgresses the line from mere advocacy, which is protected by the First Amendment, to incitement, which is not." Through the early twentieth century, when "incitement" was defined broadly as speech that had a "tendency" to cause illegal acts, it was used to prosecute nonviolent abolitionists, anarchists, socialists, and draft resisters. Gradually, the Supreme Court narrowed the definition, so that speech is protected unless it will "intentionally produce a high likelihood of real imminent harm."

What the Homegrown Terrorism bill does is bring back into the equation not just violent actions, and not just violent plots, but the words and ideas that may (or may not) inspire or encourage them somewhere down the road. It moves toward designating people as terrorists based not on what they do, but on what they say and what they think.

Other red flags appear in the bill's initial "findings"-among them, the charge that "the Internet has aided in facilitating violent radicalization, ideologically based violence, and the homegrown terrorism process in the United States by providing access to broad and constant streams of terrorist-related propaganda to United States citizens." "If Congress finds the Internet is dangerous, then the ACLU will have to worry about censorship and limitations on First Amendment activities," says the ACLU's Fredrickson. "Why go down that road?"

It's the "road" the bill lays out that worries civil libertarians. "This measure looks benign enough, but we should be concerned about where it will lead," Kamau Franklin of New York's Center for Constitutional Rights said when the bill passed the House. The National Commission it creates will have broad power to conduct investigations; one commentator dubbed it the "Son of HUAC"-the House Un-American Activities Committee-because it is supposed to travel around the country, holding hearings and questioning people under oath about their ideological beliefs. Wherever it may ultimately lead, the bill seems clearly part of a growing push toward expanding domestic intelligence operations-spying that is aimed not at any Al Qaeda members who may have slipped across the border, but at U.S. citizens and legal residents. The great civil libertarian Frank J. Donner, in his book The Age of Surveillance: The Aims and Methods of America's Political Intelligence System, argued that the true goal of domestic intelligence was not to prevent or punish criminal activity, but to protect existing power structures and suppress dissent. Unlike law enforcement, which deals with illegal actions that have already been committed, domestic intelligence is by nature "future-oriented": It is not looking for criminals, but potential criminals, and it does so by relying on "ideology, not behavior, theory not practice." Anyone who thinks the wrong way could at some point act the wrong way-so they have to be watched.

Donner was writing in the late 1970s, following congressional investigations that exposed the abuses of the FBI's COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program), which for more than a decade had conducted surveillance and planted informants to spy on and disrupt what J. Edgar Hoover had decided were "enemies of the American way of life"-including civil rights, anti-war, student, and women's liberation groups, as well as the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan. During this period, the bureau tapped phones, opened mail, planted bugs, and burglarized homes and offices. At least 26,000 individuals were at one point catalogued on an FBI list of persons to be rounded up in the event of a "national emergency." In the end, the Bureau conducted more than half a million investigations of so-called subversives and maintained files on well over a million Americans-all of this without a single conviction for a criminal act.

Plenty of people will argue that the "subversive" groups targeted during the McCarthy era or the COINTELPRO period were nothing like today's Islamic radicals-and there are, of course, differences, not least in terms of new tactics like suicide attacks and dirty bombs. But the Weather Underground set off at least a dozen bombs, which is a dozen more than the homegrown jihadists have managed so far. And just as the FBI spied on Weathermen and anti-war activists alike, it will be unlikely to distinguish between active jihadists and Muslims who are simply ardent or angry. What's more, anything that can be applied to one "extremist" group-laws, policies, law enforcement strategies, domestic intelligence operations-can be applied to others. A case in point is offered by Brian Michael Jenkins, a Rand Corporation terrorism expert who served as a consultant on the NYPD's report. In his book on terrorism, Unconquerable Nation: Knowing Our Enemy, Strengthening Ourselves, Jenkins wrote, "In their international campaign, the jihadists will seek common grounds with leftist, anti-American, and anti-globalization forces, who will in turn see, in radical Islam, comrades against a mutual foe." Once a terrorist is defined by thought and word rather than deed, there will be room for all of us in the big tent.

The bill does include a provision that all activities "should not violate the constitutional rights, civil rights, or civil liberties of United States citizens or lawful permanent residents," and must observe "racial neutrality" policies. They are also to be audited by Homeland Security's Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Officer. But as Mike German of the ACLU told In These Times, an internal review does not constitute real independent oversight. "Nobody should be fooled that such an office would have authority to address policies that are approved at a high level of the administration."

Outside of civil liberties groups, most criticism of the bill seems to be coming from the libertarian right-including presidential candidate Ron Paul, who gave a shout-out to his diverse base of supporters when he warned that "otherwise non-violent anti-tax, antiwar, or anti-abortion groups [could] fall under the watchful eye of this new government commission."

For an indication as to where the initiatives outlined in the bill could lead, we can look to the NYPD report on the "homegrown threat" that was released in August 2007. Prepared by two senior analysts in the department's intelligence division, it compiles information from case studies of successful attacks and thwarted plots by domestic terrorists in the United States and other Western nations, and uses them to create what the authors call "a conceptual framework for understanding the process of radicalization in the West."

The NYPD report, like the House bill, starts out with a definition of terms. But unlike the bill, it is frank about which "extremist belief system" poses what it calls "the homegrown threat" (although it often avoids referring to Islam and instead uses the term "jihadi-Salafi ideology"): "What motivates young men and women, born or living in the West, to carry out 'autonomous jihad' via acts of terrorism against their host countries? The answer is ideology. Ideology is the bedrock and catalyst for radicalization. It defines the conflict, guides movements, identifies the issues, drives recruitment, and is the basis for action. In many cases, ideology also determines target selection and informs what will be done and how it will be carried out."

The lines between thought and action are blurred. And the report states explicitly that both are dangerous and need to be policed: "Where once we would have defined the initial indicator of the threat at the point where a terrorist or group of terrorists would actually plan an attack, we have now shifted our focus to a much earlier point-a point where we believe the potential terrorist or group of terrorists begin and progress through a process of radicalization. The culmination of this process is a terrorist attack."

Central to the report is an analysis of the four phases of this "radicalization process": pre-radicalization; self-identification with the jihadist cause; indoctrination following exposure to jihadist literature or arguments; and finally, "jihadization." None of these phases involves any violent acts, although the last, in the report's definition, will "ultimately" lead to "operational planning for the jihad or a terrorist attack." The way that one phase leads into another suggests a kind of seamless continuity between thought and action, a sense of inevitability-as if once an individual admits the ideology into his mind, he will eventually end up with a bomb strapped to his body.

The report acknowledges that individuals destined to follow this trajectory do not fit any particular profile. They can be citizens or resident aliens (legal or illegal); immigrants or second- and third-generation Americans; Muslim-born or converts. The "radicalization incubators" where they gather, the report says, "can be mosques," but also "cafes, cab driver hangouts, flophouses, prisons, student associations, nongovernmental organizations, hookah (water pipe) bars, butcher shops and book stores." Or they may meet on the Web, which the report calls "a virtual incubator of its own" and New York police commissioner called "the de facto training ground" for terrorists.

Future jihadists, the report says, "look, act, talk and walk like everyone around them," and "in the early stages of their radicalization, these individuals rarely travel, are not participating in any kind of militant activity, yet they are slowly building the mind-set, intention and commitment to conduct jihad." In other words, as Spencer Ackerman writes on TPMMuckraker, "most of what we learn about potential homegrown jihadists is that their pre-radical behavior is...a lot like that of non-jihadists." How, then, can we identify these people? Only by keeping an eye on everyone who might remotely fit the bill.

"The NYPD must have the tools it needs to investigate and combat terrorism, but this report lays the foundation for blanket surveillance of the entire Muslim community," said Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The NYPD report outlines no concrete strategies for combating "jihadization," but these would presumably involve the same kinds of tactics that have been used to track "dangerous" and "subversive" groups in the past, the basic tactics of domestic intelligence work: electronic surveillance, recruiting informants, placing agents-and sometimes agents provocateur-inside suspect communities, and taking up other opportunities to watch, look, and listen.

The report also seems to have inspired renewed calls for ordinary citizens to join in the task of rooting out potential jihadists by spying on their neighbors. "They can live next door," warned the New York Post, which also declared that the report "underscores the relentless efforts by civil libertarians and leftist groups-with the New York Times at the head of the line-to thwart counterterrorist efforts" by the NYPD.

James Ridgeway

James Ridgeway is senior Washington correspondent for Mother Jones, and co-editor of Solitary Watch. James began his career as a contributor to the New Republic, Ramparts and the Wall Street Journal. Later, he was co-founder and editor of the political newsletters Mayday, Hard Times and the Elements.

Share This Article

More in: