Human Rights Watch is calling for a congressional inquiry into an executive order aimed at the warrantless monitoring of U.S. citizens and permanent residents after obtaining new documents that raise serious and troubling concerns about the extent of such surveillance.
The human rights group used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain training materials used by the Defense Department to implement Executive Order 12333's guidance, in which agencies are directed to monitor potential "homegrown violent extremists."
A Defense Department spokesperson told HRW that such extremists "may be self-radicalized via the internet, social media, etc., and then plan or execute terrorist acts in furtherance of the ideology or goals of a foreign terrorist group," but offered no further information about criteria government agencies would use to determine potential dangerous individuals.
On its website on Wednesday, HRW raised concerns "about the methods and criteria the government may be using to define and identify 'homegrown violent extremists,' and particularly about the risk that people who are exercising their legitimate free-expression rights will be targeted for monitoring in a discriminatory or arbitrary manner."
"These documents point to just how thoroughly the public has been kept in the dark about warrantless surveillance under Executive Order 12333," said Sarah St. Vincent, a surveillance and national security researcher. "Their explanations of the order suggest that the government may be carrying out monitoring that poses serious problems for human rights, and Congress should seek more information about what the intelligence agencies are doing in this respect."
The training materials note that homegrown violent extremists do not necessarily have "specific connections to foreign terrorist groups," pointing to the attackers who carried out the shootings in San Bernardino, California in 2015 and Orlando, Florida last year as examples.
As civil libertarians have long warned, the government has often used the initial cover of "targeting terrorists" to further their ability to monitor other groups.
"The government’s authority to monitor people doesn't depend on their beliefs, or what the government thinks they believe, but on specific evidence that gives sufficient reason to think a criminal offense is occurring or that the person is an agent of a foreign power," St. Vincent said. "A secret determination that someone's rights should be curtailed based on undisclosed criteria is incompatible with the rule of law. The government should explain what it's doing as well as its legal basis for doing it."