Last year, the DHS announced a “new” countering domestic violent extremism initiative: the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships (CP3). It’s just a new version of the old CVE model, its biased bones dressed up with new rhetoric. And it will continue to gouge scars in communities. If past CVE programs are any indication, CP3 will use federal grant dollars to recruit community organizations into becoming outposts of the surveillance state. Community organizations will receive an influx of funding – but one barbed with an obligation to surveil the people they serve. The leaders of community organizations will take on dual roles as untrained informants. They’ll scan the people moving through their programs, searching for indications that some of them may turn to violence and terrorism. And, for the most part, they’ll be pretty bad at it.
CP3/CVE relies on debunked science. Despite the dearth of evidence that the indicators have predictive power, DHS will continue to hand untrained community leaders checklists of overbroad and biased indicators. And that will have severe ramifications for the freedom of expression. Ascribing danger to First Amendment-protected speech chills activism and inquiry. By stigmatizing some speech as violence-prone, it delegitimizes dissent. This isn’t a hypothetical. Past CVE programs have a history of creating the conditions for self-censorship and the suppression of activism. There’s every indication that these problems will continue with CP3.
CVE programs like CP3 deputize community leaders to predict who will become a terrorist based on a checklist of indicators. It would be easy to figure out who was going to commit violence if there were always clear signs. But science shows us there’s no one path to violence, and no unambiguous indicators. Many of the indicators are so broad that CVE practitioners rely on stereotypes about who is predisposed to terrorism. CVE practitioners look for people at the center of overlapping Venn diagrams. What does this look like in practice? In a word, bias. CVE tends to cast people under suspicion for…
Researching foreign policy…while Muslim.
Wondering about injustice….while experiencing mental illness.
Protesting police violence….while Black.
This is the textbook definition of profiling. Behaviors that are seen a benign in white people take on a grim implication of violence when seen through the racialized, ableist, and Islamophobic lens of CVE. Previous CVE programs excelled in identifying which Muslims had opinions about American foreign policy. Identifying potential terrorists? Not so much.
All surveillance has the opportunity to amplify bias. In handing CVE practitioners the impossible task of using pseudoscientific indicators to identity the vanishingly small proportion of terrorists, DHS empowers random community members to stereotype with impunity. In doing so, CVE inadvertently imposes a censorship regime.
CVE effectively carves out no-go zones for academic inquiry. While white students can freely research topics like terrorism and Middle Eastern foreign policy, a Muslim kid researching Somalia can fall into the crosshairs of the surveillance state. Mentally ill people, Muslims, and Black and Brown people are well aware that mosque leaders, teachers, psychologists, and nonprofit staff are acting as untrained informants funneling threat information into the national security state. In previous versions of the program, Muslim youth experienced a creeping sense that any adult in their lives might be a possible informant. Fatema Ahmad of Muslim Justice League explained what this does to youth:
That is a deep psychological impact. That you don’t know who you can trust. And these are places and people who you are supposed to trust. These are the helping professions. These are the community centers and places of worship that other [white] people get to see as sanctuary. And our community doesn’t have that.
Muslim youth curious about foreign policy, researching the countries their families emigrated from, or trying to engage with activism around foreign policy could find themselves under suspicion. Random adults in the community looking for early warning signs of radicalization often defaulted to monitoring childrens’ curiosity. Ahmad again describes what this was like:
You might make different choices about where you go. You definitely make different choices about what you talk about.
Activism and academic inquiry are collateral casualties of CVE. Placing activists and curious youth under suspicion and surveillance violates civil liberties, delegitimizes inquiry, and encourages self-censorship, all with no demonstrated benefit to national security. CP3 may have a new name, but it replicates old harms.