By Cody Bloomfield
On the campaign trail, Biden promised to end the Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Program (TVTP). He did… by recycling the same broken countering violent extremism framework into a new counterterrorism grant program. Under Biden’s DHS, TVTP heads to the acronym graveyard, and federal dollars will instead flow into the newly created Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships (CP3). DHS couches the new program in language about upholding civil liberties, implicitly acknowledging past issues with CVE/TVTP programs. However, the changes are more style than substance. DHS insists that CP3 won’t be used to target Muslims (though there’s no guarantee a future administration won’t change that). But changing priorities doesn’t change that the countering violent extremism framework relies on profiling – whether religious, racial, or political – to funnel certain people towards law enforcement. While it’s good news that DHS’s grants no longer consider obviously-biased markers like wearing hijab a warning sign for terrorism, CP3 suffers from the same fatal flaw as previous programs: radicalization theory.
Radicalization theory is the debunked idea that adoption of certain ideologies sets people on a trajectory towards violence. This is demonstrably false. Even the strongest studies cited by DHS find only weak commonalities between people who commit violence, and no indicators whatsoever with reliable predictive power. The primary flaw of CP3-style programs is obvious: of people who hold an ideology, only an infinitesimal fraction will ever commit violence. Accepting the false premise that ideologies in some way inexorably predispose people to violence opens the door for invasive and politically-biased government surveillance. In the press release announcing CP3, DHS highlights increased intelligence gathering and information sharing following the January 6 attack on the capitol.
Now, DHS wants to turn the broken countering violent extremism framework into a tool against white supremacy. But radicalization theory holds no more true for white people turning to militant white supremacy than it does for Muslims turning to radical Islam. The overwhelming majority of people who hold a given ideology will never commit violence, and labeling some ideologies as violence-prone chills constitutionally-protected discourse in the public sphere. White supremacy is a reprehensible cause, but expanding groundless drag-net surveillance is far from a solution. The history of federal agencies adjudicating “acceptable” speech versus “extremist” speech does not inspire optimism in the government’s ability to tackle white supremacy, nor should the government be in the business of making content-based determinations of allowable speech. Further, the government has plenty of tools to address white supremacist violence when there is evidence that a crime will occur. CP3 is not one of those tools. Instead, CP3 operates in a dystopian speculative policing sphere where nebulous indicators are used to justify invasive surveillance.
It should be clear from over a decade of Muslim-driven activism that turning trusted community leaders into de facto informants is a damaging strategy. In CVE/TVTP, and it appears, in CP3, DHS issues grants to community organizations, research centers, and local government entities, who in turn share information with DHS. While many of these programs appear benign on their face (who’s going to argue with teaching elementary schoolers about prejudice?), the inescapable fact is that they are operating in a law enforcement framework that weaponizes social programs as surveillance tools. People attending DHS-funded programs aren’t just participating in educational programs, they’re also being evaluated as potential terrorists.
CP3 may have a new name and new targets, but it does nothing to rectify the central problem of the countering violent extremism framework. CP3, like past CVE/TVTP programs, relies on the assumption that certain forms of speech and expression lead to violence. This assumption was false for Muslims then and is false for white supremacists now. The Biden administration must be wary of enacting knee-jerk policies that expand speculative surveillance powers at the cost of civil liberties.