Is the Justice Dept.'s New Program to Find Homegrown Terrorists Wonderful or Worrisome (or Both)?


Can't anybody in the administration even give a speech about fighting terrorism without making us sound like a bunch of collectivists?

Today Attorney General Eric Holder introduced the public to a "pilot program" the Department of Justice is rolling out to better attempt to track down people living in the United States who may be considering running off to join ISIS and becoming terrorists. Guess the mass surveillance and those fusion centers aren't working out after all (if there were any doubts following the Boston Marathon Bombing). Holder's announcement is typically vague and full of Pablum about how we Americans are all the same and are working together and share the same ideals, unnecessarily padding out the word count. Here's an excerpt that appears to contain the most substance:

Today, I am announcing that the Department of Justice is partnering with the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center to launch a new series of pilot programs in cities across the nation.  These programs will bring together community representatives, public safety officials, religious leaders, and United States Attorneys to  improve local engagement; to counter violent extremism; and – ultimately – to build a broad network of community partnerships to keep our nation safe.  Under President Obama's leadership, along with our interagency affiliates, we will work closely with community representatives to develop comprehensive local strategies, to raise awareness about important issues, to share information on best practices, and to expand and improve training in every area of the country.

Already, since 2012, our U.S. Attorneys have held or attended more than 1,700 engagement-related events or meetings to enhance trust and facilitate communication in their neighborhoods and districts.  This innovative new pilot initiative will build on that important work.  And the White House will be hosting a Countering Violent Extremism summit in October to highlight these and other domestic and international efforts.  Ultimately, the pilot programs will enable us to develop more effective – and more inclusive – ways to help build the more just, secure, and free society that all Americans deserve.

We know that bulk collection of metadata has been ineffective in actually combating home-grown terrorism. We know that actually old-fashioned policing and communicating with the community is vital to tracking down actual threats. This shouldn't be a "pilot" program at all but rather something that law enforcement agencies should have been doing all along.

And yet, when we look at the Department of Justice's own tactics as well as behavior from folks like the New York Police Department, it's difficult to imagine that this program is going to be about things like "facilitating communication." This is a Department of Justice that has blocked efforts to challenge its no-fly and watch lists that make travel miserable for thousands of Americans despite having no known connection to any terrorist organization. When the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the federal no-fly list, some of the people they represented testified that they had been told they could get their rights back in exchange for becoming informants for the federal government. The New York Police Department's surveillance on Muslim communities in the city and in New Jersey had other problems with its use of informants. If this program is about drawing more informants into the government fold, we should be concerned about what tactics they'll use to get information.

For that matter, we should most assuredly be concerned about what tactics they'll use to actually catch suspects. The FBI has notoriously broken up "terrorist plots" that they had actually created themselves to draw in subjects who have expressed anger and rage at the United States but lacked the resources (and possibly the intelligence) to actually orchestrate anything dangerous. And then they foil the "plot," arrest the guy, and send him to prison. Given that this is a big pilot project with a public rollout, there's going to be pressure for outcomes. Catching people and putting them in jail is what they're going to want to brag about.

McClatchy's coverage of today's announcement highlights the "challenge" that the Justice Department has to "tamp down fears that the push for improved communication is a ruse to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to conduct domestic spying activities." The Department of Justice and the National Security Agency currently do not have the best reputation for honesty and transparency right now. Why would anybody believe Holder's intentions at this point?

A video of Holder's statement is here.