Matt Renner on Thought Crime Prevention Bill


Richard Moore

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The Violent Radicalization Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007
    By Matt Renner
    t r u t h o u t | Report
    Thursday 29 November 2007

A month ago, the House of Representatives passed legislation that targets 
Americans with radical ideologies for research. The bill has received little 
media attention and has almost unanimous support in the House. However, civil 
liberties groups see the bill as a threat to the constitutionally protected 
freedoms of expression, privacy and protest.

HR 1955, "The Violent Radicalization Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 
2007", apparently intended to assess "homegrown" terrorism threats and causes is
on a fast-track through Congress. Proponents claim the bill would centralize 
information about the formation of domestic terrorists and would not impinge on 
constitutional rights.

On October 23, the bill passed the House of Representatives by a 404-6 margin 
with 23 members not voting. If passed in the Senate and signed into law by 
George W. Bush, the act would establish a ten-member National Commission on the 
Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism, to study and 
propose legislation to address the threat of possible "radicalization" of people
legally residing in the US.

Despite being written by a Democrat, the current version of the act would 
probably set up a Commission dominated by Republicans. By allowing Bush and 
Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff to each appoint one member of 
the Commission, and splitting the appointment of the other eight positions 
equally between Congressional Democrats and Republicans, the Commission would 
consist of six Republican appointees and four Democrat ones.

The Commission would be tasked with collecting information on domestically 
spawned terrorism from a variety of sources, including foreign governments and 
previous domestic studies. The Commission would then report to Congress and 
recommend policy changes to address the threat. There is no opposition to this 
consolidation or research. However, the Commission would be given broad 
authority to hold hearings and collect evidence, powers that raise red flags for
civil liberties groups.

Civil liberties activists have criticized the bill, some comparing the 
Commission it would establish to the McCarthy Commission that investigated 
Americans for possible associations with Communist groups, casting suspicion on 
law-abiding citizens and ruining their reputations. The Commission would be 
empowered to "hold hearings and sit and act at such times and places, take such 
testimony, receive such evidence, and administer such oaths as the Commission 
considers advisable to carry out its duties."

Odette Wilkens, the executive director of the Equal Justice Alliance, a 
constitutional watchdog group, compared the legislation to the McCarthy 
Commission and to the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which 
infiltrated, undermined and spied on civil rights and antiwar groups during the 
1950s and 60s.

"The commission would have very broad powers. It could investigate anyone. It 
would create a public perception that whoever is being investigated by the 
Commission must be involved in subversive or illegal activities. It would give 
the appearance that whoever they are investigating is potentially a traitor or 
disloyal or a terrorist, even if all they were doing was advocating lawful 
views," Wilkens said.

In a speech on the floor of the House before the vote, Congresswoman Jane Harman
(D-California), the chair of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on 
Intelligence and author of the bill said, "Free speech, espousing even very 
radical beliefs, is protected by our Constitution - but violent behavior is not.
Our plan must be to intervene before a person crosses that line separating 
radical views from violent behavior, to understand the forces at work on the 
individual and the community, to create an environment that discourages 
disillusionment and alienation, that instills in young people a sense of 
belonging and faith in the future."

In the same speech, Harman explained why "homegrown" terrorists are a threat to 
the US. She offered the explanation that adolescents who might be susceptible to
recruitment by gangs might also be potential terrorists.

"Combine that personal adolescent upheaval with the explosion of information 
technologies and communications tools - tools which American kids are using to 
broadcast messages from al-Qaeda - and there is a road map to terror, a 'retail 
outlet' for anger and warped aspirations. Link that intent with a trained 
terrorist operative who has actual capability, and a 'Made in the USA' suicide 
bomber is born," Harman said.

The bill specifically identifies the Internet as a tool of radicalization. "The 
Internet has aided in facilitating violent radicalization, ideologically based 
violence, and the homegrown terrorism process in the United States by providing 
access to broad and constant streams of terrorist-related propaganda to United 
States citizens."

In a press release, Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington American 
Civil Liberties Union legislative office, took issue with this characterization.
"If Congress finds the Internet is dangerous, then the ACLU will have to worry 
about censorship and limitations on First Amendment activities. Why go down that
road?" Fredrickson asked in a press release.

The ALCU has "serious concerns" about the bill. Fredrickson said, "Law 
enforcement should focus on action, not thought. We need to worry about the 
people who are committing crimes rather than those who harbor beliefs that the 
government may consider to be extreme."

According to Wilkens, the bill, in its current form, lacks specific definitions.
which would give the Commission expansive and possibly dangerous powers. The 
Committee would be set up to address the process of "violent radicalization," 
which the bill defines as "the process of adopting or promoting an extremist 
belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to 
advance political, religious, or social change." According to Wilkens, the bill 
does not adequately define "an extremist belief system," opening the door for 

"An 'extremist belief system' can be whatever anyone on the commission says it 
is. Back in the 60s, civil rights leaders and Vietnam War protesters were 
considered radicals. They weren't committing violence but they were considered 
radicals because of their belief system," Wilkens said.

The bill would also create a "Center of Excellence for the Study of Violent 
Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism in the United States," on an unspecified 
University campus. Unlike other Centers of Excellence university-based 
government research centers created by the Department of Homeland Security, the 
Center established by this bill could have a chilling effect on political 
activity on campus because of its specific mission to "assist Federal, State, 
local and tribal homeland security officials through training, education, and 
research in preventing violent radicalization and homegrown terrorism," 
according to Wilkens.

"If you are on campus and the thought police are on campus are you going to want
to join a political group?" Wilkens asked.

Congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) was one of three
Democrats who voted against the bill, but he has given no public explanation for
his opposition and his office did not respond to a call for comment as of this 

Neither the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) nor Congressman 
John Conyers (D-Michigan), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, voted 
on the bill.

The bill has been referred to the Senate Homeland Security Committee, chaired by
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut). With overwhelming support from the House,
it is likely to pass quickly through the Senate.

    Matt Renner is an assistant editor and Washington reporter for Truthout.

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