Civil libertarians are worried that a little-known anti-terrorism bill now making its way through the U.S. Congress with virtually no debate could be planting the seeds of another USA PATRIOT Act, which was hurriedly enacted into law after the al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, co-authored by the former chair of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman, a California Democrat, passed the House by an overwhelming 400-6 vote last month, and will soon be considered by the Senate.
The bill’s co-author is Republican Congressman David Reichert of Washington state. The Senate version is being drafted by Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is chaired by hawkish Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman. Harman is chair of the House Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee.
Civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), say the measure could herald a new government crackdown on dissident activity and infiltration of universities under the guise of fighting terrorism.
The CCR’s Kamau Franklin, a Racial Justice Fellow, told IPS, "This measure looks benign enough, but we should be concerned about where it will lead. It may well result in recommendations for new laws that criminalize radical thought and peaceful dissent, posing as academic study."
Franklin added, "Crimes such as conspiracy or incitement to violence are already covered by both state and federal statute. There is no need for additional criminal laws."
He speculated that Congress "may want to get this measure passed and signed into law to head off peaceful demonstrations" at the upcoming Republican and Democratic Party conventions. "And no congressperson of either political party wants to vote against this bill and get labeled as being soft on terrorism."
Harman’s bill would convene a 10-member national commission to study "violent radicalization" (defined as "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") and "homegrown terrorism" (defined as "the use, planned use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual born, raised, or based and operating primarily within the United States [ ] to intimidate or coerce the United States government, the civilian population of the United States, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives").
The bill also directs the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to designate a university-based research "center of excellence" where academics, policy-makers, members of the private sector and other stakeholders can collaborate to better understand and prevent radicalization and homegrown terrorism. Some experts are concerned that politics will unduly influence which institution DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff will designate.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Chertoff was head of the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice (DOJ) and played a key role in implementing the department’s roundup of hundreds of Muslims who were detained without charge, frequently abused, and denied access to legal counsel.
Critics of Harman’s bill point out that commission members would all be appointed by a high-ranking elected official. Those making these appointments would include the president, the secretary of Homeland Security, the speaker and ranking member of the House, the majority and minority leaders of the Senate, and senior members of the House and Senate committees overseeing homeland security.
Critics also fear that the bill’s definitions of "extremism" and "terrorism" are too vague and its mandate too broad, and that government-appointed commissions could be used as ideological cover to push through harsher laws.
Congressional sponsors of the bill claim it is limited in scope. "Though not a silver bullet, the legislation will help the nation develop a better understanding of the forces that lead to homegrown terrorism, and the steps we can take to stop it," Harman told Congress.
But the bill’s purpose goes beyond academic inquiry. In a Nov. 7 press release, Harman said, "the National Commission [will] propose to both Congress and Chertoff initiatives to intercede before radicalized individuals turn violent."
According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, the commission "will focus in on passing additional federal criminal penalties that are sweeping and inclusive in criminalizing dissent and protest work more surveillance on thought rather than on actions. Further, this bipartisan attempt can set the ground for an even more acquiescent Congress to presidential power, never wanting to look weak on terrorism."
The commission would be tasked with compiling information about what leads up to violent radicalization, and how to prevent or combat it with the intent to issue a final report with recommendations for both preventative and counter measures.
Implementing the bill would likely cost some $22 million over the 2008-2012 period, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But critics point out that the bill would duplicate work already being done in and out of government.
For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) already has a domestic terrorism unit; the U.S. intelligence community monitors the homegrown terrorists and overseas networks that might be reaching out to U.S. residents; and many universities and think tanks are already specializing in studying the subject.
But Harman argues that a national commission on homegrown terrorism could benefit the country in much the same way as the 9/11 Commission, the Silberman/Robb Commission, or other high-profile national security inquiries.
But groups like the CCR are wondering what exactly is meant by "an extremist belief system."
"The term is left undefined and open to many interpretations socialism, anarchism, communism, nationalism, liberalism, etc. that would serve to undermine expressions that don’t fit within the allowable areas of debate. A direct action led by any group that blocks traffic can be looked upon as being coercive," CCR says.
The bill says the Internet has aided in facilitating violent radicalization, ideologically based violence, and the homegrown terrorism process in the U.S. by providing access to "broad and constant streams of terrorist-related propaganda to U.S. citizens."
While civil liberties groups agree that focus on the Internet is crucial, they fear it could set up far more intrusive surveillance techniques, without warrants, and the potential to criminalize ideas and not actions could mean penalties for a stance rather than a criminal act.
The bill also uses the term "ideologically-based violence, meaning the use, planned use, or threatened use of force or violence by a group or individual to promote the group or individual’s political, religious, or social beliefs."
But the CCR and other groups ask, "What is force? Is civil disobedience covered under that, if arrested at a protest rally and charged with disorderly conduct, obstructing governmental administration, or even assault, does that now open you up to possible terrorist charges in the future?"
Some of the most egregious terrorist attacks in U.S. history have been carried out by U.S. citizens, including the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.