What the Inspector General Report on FBI Assessments of Homegrown Violent Extremists Misses

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Last week, the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General released a report on the FBI’s use of assessment level investigations to identify homegrown violent extremists. The report is in response to several high profile terror attacks where the perpetrator had previously been the subject of an FBI assessment that was closed. Since the subjects of these assessments later went on to carry out criminal acts, some have raised questions about whether the FBI could have done more to prevent these attacks The report is highly disturbing, but not for the obvious reasons. The FBI’s use of assessments and its homegrown violent extremism designation are both highly controversial. Yet, the OIG ignores this completely, taking their existence for granted.  

What is an assessment? 

Assessments are the product of Attorney General Guidelines created by George W. Bush’s lameduck Attorney General Michael Mukasey. Assessments allowed for the first time since the reforms of the 1970s for the FBI to investigate someone without any factual predicate to suggest that individual is involved in criminal activity or threatens national security. In spite of this low threshold for opening an assessment, an FBI agent conducting an assessment can use extraordinarily intrusive investigative means such as digging through trash or using an informant.

Defending Rights & Dissent objected to the creation of assessments and believes they should be abolished. In our report, Still Spying on Dissent: The Enduring Legacy of FBI First Amendment Abuse, we recommended that all FBI investigations must require a factual.This is not an extreme suggestion; many local law enforcement agencies require officers to have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before launching an investigation. In fact, in many case, because of the low bar for opening an assessment, local police who participate in FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces are breaking local law. This has led police departments in San Francisco and Portland to break off participation in the Joint Terrorism Task Force. 

These assessments have been used in abusive counterterrorism investigations. For example, an investigation into Houston, Texas based anti-Keystone Pipeline activists was an assessment. FOIA requests by the American Civil Liberties Union and Media Justice obtained heavily redacted documents about “Black Identity Extremism” investigations revealed a number of assessments had been carried out. 

What is Homegrown Violent Extremism?

It’s bad enough that the OIG failed to raise the question about whether assessments should exist in the first place, but the report focuses on only on missed threats from “homegrown violent extremists.” While that term may sound broad, it isn’t. As the report explains:

The FBI defines [Homegrown Violent Extremists] as global jihad-inspired individuals who are in the United States, have been radicalized primarily in the United States, and are not receiving individualized direction from a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).

A domestic act committed by US a citizen without direction from abroad should be considered domestic terrorism. But when that individual is “global jihad inspired” it gets a special category seperate from international or domestic terrorism. This bizarre othering reinforces a narrative that Muslim-Americans pose an unique threat.

The OIG report is therefore only looking at whether FBI adequately followed leads only where the alleged terrorist was “global jihad” inspires, as opposed to all terrorism cases involving domestic subject. As Cato fellow and Defending Rights & Dissent board member Pat Edington poignantly pointed out, 

That definition excludes the white supremacist or Neo-Nazi domestic terrorists that in the post-9/11 period have actually accounted for more U.S. homeland terrorism-related deaths than those inspired by Salafist ideology. Why Horowitz and his team did not question the FBI’s very selective definition of who is considered an [Homegrown Violent Extremist] is just one troubling aspect of the report

The FBI’s suspionless investigations of American citizens and its double standards applies to Muslim-Americans are both worthy subjects for an Inspector General’s report. Unfortunately, the OIG completely missed the big picture.