On May 8, staff for Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) Chair Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-ME) published a report on homegrown terrorism and the Internet that has raised free speech and guilt-by-association concerns.
A coalition of nonprofits and a group of Muslim organizations have both sent letters objecting to the assumptions in the report. In addition, YouTube parent company Google rejected a request from Lieberman to remove all content posted by terrorist organizations, saying videos with legal, nonviolent, and non-hate speech content would remain online.
The report, Violent Islamist Extremism, The Internet, and the Homegrown Terrorist Threat, follows six Senate hearings on the subject and is the first in a series planned by committee staff. It focuses on “how violent Islamist terrorist groups like al-Qaeda are using the Internet to enlist followers into the global violent Islamist terrorist movement …”
While the report frequently refers to “domestic radicalization” and “violent Islamist ideology,” it never defines these terms. It cites the attacks on public transit systems in London and Madrid and three examples of terrorist plot arrests in the United States as evidence of a “growing trend that has raised concerns within the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities.”
It goes on to note that unlike Europe, the U.S. history of absorbing immigrants has provided a layer of protection against “homegrown terrorism,” but “the terrorists’ Internet campaign bypasses America’s physical borders and undermines cultural barriers that previously served as a bulwark against al-Qaeda’s message …” It then provides examples of “highly sophisticated operations that utilize cutting-edge technology”, including websites, chat rooms, online magazines, songs, news updates, and more.
The report’s exclusive focus on the Internet and on American Muslims generated an immediate response from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Senior Legislative Counsel Timothy Sparapani said, “Focusing on people with specific religious beliefs or backgrounds will not protect against the Timothy McVeigh’s of the world. This narrow focus could cost us dearly in the future.”
On May 14, a coalition of Muslim organizations sent Lieberman and Collins a joint letter noting the committee’s failure to get input from American Muslims at its hearings and expressing concern that the report encourages “suspicion of several million Americans on the basis of faith.” The letter was signed by the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Muslim Advocates, and the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
Prior to release of the report, a broad-based coalition of nonprofits sent the committee recommendations that urged caution, saying, “It is critically important the articulation of the problem does not cause people merely exercising their First Amendment rights to fear being swept into the net of suspicion.” It also pointed to the long-established principle, based on the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brandenburg v. Ohio, that “speech can only be curtailed when it is intended to and has the effect of causing imminent lawless conduct. Mere abstract advocacy of violence, however objectionable, may not be barred.”
The coalition of nonprofits noted that the Internet has “become an essential communications and research tool for everyone. Our concern is that this focus on the Internet could be a precursor to proposals to censor and regulate speech on the Internet. Indeed, some policy makers have advocated shutting down objectionable websites.” However, the committee report acknowledges that content is “mirrored” on many sites, so that “propaganda remains accessible even if one or more of the sites are not available.”
Additional Nonprofit Concerns Cited
The nonprofit coalition that had earlier expressed its concerns to committee staff also criticized the report’s heavy reliance on a 2007 New York City Police Department (NYPD) model of the radicalization process. The NYPD report describes a four-stage “path to radicalization” consisting of pre-radicalization, self-identification, indoctrination, and jihadization. The report applied this template to its analysis of Internet communications by terrorist organizations.
The problem, according to the nonprofit coalition, is that the model “fails to note that millions of people may progress through these ‘stages’ and never commit an act of violence.” The letter from the Muslim organizations also noted that the NYPD model had “prompted criticism for examining a statistically insignificant, unrepresentative sample set, as well as for drawing conclusions based on logical fallacies. In fact, federal counterterrorism officials have privately repudiated the NYPD report.”