It’s been just over a year since the Biden administration released the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. Since the ADL put out their own analysis, we decided to evaluate the strategy ourselves in light of what the National Strategy has meant for civil liberties.
The Biden administration’s focus on the threat posed by white supremacy is welcome. Government investigatory attention has long remained hyperfocused on racial justice and other left-leaning activism, and on Black and Brown activists, almost to the exclusion of real threats posed by white supremacist violence. We’re glad Biden has realized where the threat lies, even if his administration doesn’t come close to reckoning with the complicity of the government in promulgating white supremacy. But the Biden administration’s lucid rhetoric about the threat posed by white supremacist violence doesn’t always line up with the implementation on the ground.
The FBI, DHS, and other federal agencies are cagey about what they’re actually doing to address white supremacy. Instead of naming the threat, they categorize their work as addressing “racially motivated violent extremism.” The use of both-sides categories like “racially motivated violent extremist” or “anti-government extremist” can obfuscate who’s being monitored and why. Is information being collected about white supremacists, or about Black Lives Matter activists? What are the guardrails that ensure that the next Trump administration can’t investigate Black activists in the name of addressing racially motivated violent extremism? Despite Biden’s rhetoric about tamping down on white supremacy, the bureaucratic threat designations can cloud rather than clarify the nature of the threat.
The ADL touts enhanced information sharing as a victory of this pillar of the Biden administration’s plan to address white supremacy. This praise lacks interrogation of the issues embedded in federal information sharing systems. It’s not clear that lack of information sharing allowed white supremacist violence to slip through the cracks, or whether enhanced information sharing rectifies issues in any meaningful way. Enhanced information sharing is not an intrinsic good.
As part of the National Strategy, DHS is increasing grants to state governments. As the ADL points out, we don’t know how state governments have spent the money. In and of themselves, these grants aren’t a bad idea. They become problematic if they rely on debunked radicalization theory – the idea that there’s a traceable path of escalation from despicable ideas to criminal violence. When awarding these grants, we’d advise DHS to be cautious and stay grounded on a solid empirical footing.
This pillar of Biden’s strategy also involved evaluation of whether overseas white supremacist groups should be designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations. This designation opens up considerably more authorities for federal agents to prosecute material support for terrorism cases, potentially endangering “awful but lawful” freedom of association between US citizens and groups with white supremacist elements abroad. Since it was first proposed as part of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, Defending Rights & Dissent has always opposed the material support for Foreign Terrorist Organizations law. While white supremacists connecting with groups abroad are hardly sympathetic, we must raise concerns about any further intrusion of the FBI into First Amendment-protected activity.
This pillar is about prevention: addressing the root causes of violence before individuals are on a path to commit acts of domestic terror. The motive behind these initiatives is a good one: that there should be an opportunity for communities to intervene at stages prior to contact with law enforcement. The problem is that, as implemented, prevention programs replicate the problems of policing. And, further distanced from any actual criminal conduct, they invite bias and profiling.
The Biden administration claims that it’s using a public health approach by leveraging its prevention programs to look at the root causes of violence and grievance. But a true public health approach – or community-based approach – would steer far clear of engagement with law enforcement. By nature, prevention programs are intended to fill in the gaps where red flags arise, but before those red flags merit criminal investigation. But much of the prevention approach, especially the TVTP grants run out of the CP3 office, place police between people and the community resources they need. Rather than diversifying the options to treat at-risk individuals, CP3’s grants merely diversify the channels through which someone can be referred to law enforcement. Some of the grants are awarded directly to law enforcement. Others are awarded to community-based organizations with a nexus to law enforcement, often through the use of multidisciplinary threat assessment teams.
A true public health approach provides resources to communities without barbs attached. CP3’s grants don’t do that; they stigmatize and surveil individuals. Community programs with a backstop in policing replicate the bias of CVE and other misguided initiatives. CP3’s grants are not an alternative to policing; they’re an annex of it. The whole-of-society prevention approach advocated by the CP3 office would be better administered outside of the context of terrorism investigation and divorced from law enforcement, such as through a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. Advocates of the BREATHE Act framework explicitly warn that involving police in community initiatives risks replicating the same bias and basic problems of policing. Community resources should uplift communities, not contribute to their oppression.
Our concern with the CP3 office comes from a decade of direct experience of communities of color with CVE programs. The CP3 office operates in generalities, engaging in rhetoric promising to target white supremacist violence without providing any tangible evidence that the office is using evidence-based practices. CP3 is cagey about which threats each grant is intended to alleviate, leading Muslim civil rights organizations to worry that Muslims will again be targeted. Further, the office operates using vaguely-defined risk factors and behavioral indicators, some of which are so general as to invite practitioners to fill in the blanks with their preconceived notions of what a potential terrorist looks like. Others encompass First Amendment-protected activity. The use of these indicators defies empirical rationale, yet the CP3 continues to implement them with caveats about their unreliability – all the while involving law enforcement as a backstop in its programming. There are no clear guardrails to protect civil rights and civil liberties now, and the program is rife with potential to be abused, especially if another Trumpian president comes into power. Promises to address white supremacy absent empirical validation should be cause for consternation, not celebration. The Biden administration should resist the ADL and others’ calls to scale up the CP3 office, and instead should redirect prevention efforts to an office outside of the criminal investigation and law enforcement context.
Aside from CP3 grants, this pillar involves attempts at supply-side control of extremist information. For obvious reasons, this effort has high potential to run afoul of the First Amendment. Michael German, a former FBI agent who infiltrated white supremacist groups, points out that there’s a chicken-and-egg relationship between violence and ideology. Some people are attracted to violence and slap on ideology; others are fanatics that eventually commit violence. Some people commit violence without any ideology, and others are strong adherents to despicable ideologies but never commit violence. The relationship between violence and ideology is a complex one, fraught with risk to constitutional civil liberties. Besides, there’s a very real cost to hunting down extreme ideas instead of violent people. With limited government resources, the Biden administration would do better to focus on behaviors rather than embarking on the fool’s errand of chasing down extremist information online, especially when that process requires trampling over the First Amendment.
The Biden administration’s increased focus on prosecuting more domestic terror cases has not yielded dividends in reducing white supremacist violence. We concur with the ADL’s caution that Biden’s directive to AG Garland to increase the volume of domestic terrorism cases might have resulted in a heightened number of prosecutions of Portland, Oregon protesters. The civil liberties concerns of abducting protesters in unmarked vans aside, the overall increase in the number of domestic terrorism cases referred doesn’t necessarily reflect the Biden administration making a dent in prosecuting white supremacist violence. Here, too, the both sides-ism of lumping together sovereign citizen capitol insurrectionists with anarchists running autonomous zones in Portland obfuscates where the Biden administration’s actual focus lies.
This pillar encompasses an ambitious slate of long-term projects designed to ameliorate sources of violence. The projects, which range from civics education to equitable economic recovery, are posited as ways to regain marginalized communities’ trust in government through addressing the myriad ways racism inflects policy in the United States. This is an extraordinarily ambitious goal, and a welcome recognition of the wide-reaching effects of white supremacy. The Biden administration has taken steps towards accomplishing some of the projects listed in this pillar. But in the macro sense, this pillar needs to recognize how other components of the National Strategy erode trust between marginalized communities and the government.
Part of eradicating white supremacy involves examination of how information sharing, criminal investigation, and involvement of law enforcement damages communities of color. While the government still teeters on unvalidated indicators to pick targets for law enforcement intervention, community trust cannot be restored. Illogical treatment of threat categories, inadequate civil liberties guardrails, and reliance on debunked radicalization theory all create an environment that invites bias and speculation to step into the lacuna between empirical footing and high-level directives. A year into the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, the Biden administration should resist calls to create new centers and new authorities, and instead focus on the needs of the communities most affected by white supremacy.