OMB Watch: US Senate Report on Homegrown Terrorism and the Internet Generates Criticism

Senate Report on Homegrown Terrorism and the Internet Generates Criticism – May 28, 2008 Vol. 9, No. 11 – OMB Watch

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.’

Google Rejects Lieberman Request

Fears of attempts to censor content on the Internet were quickly realized on May 19 when Lieberman sent a letter to Google asking them to ‘immediately remove all content produced by Islamist terrorist organizations from YouTube.’ Lieberman’s letter cited the staff report and noted, ‘Searches on YouTube return dozens of videos branded with an icon or logo identifying the videos as the work of one of these Islamist terrorist organizations.’ As a result, Lieberman says YouTube ‘unwittingly’ permits these groups to use the Web ‘to disseminate their propaganda, enlist followers, and provide weapons training.’ The letter says YouTube’s Community Guidelines are not adequately enforced.

Google posted a response on its Public Policy Blog, which said ‘hundreds of thousands of videos are uploaded to YouTube every day. Because it is not possible to pre-screen this much content, we have developed an innovative and reliable community policing system that involves our users in helping us enforce YouTube’s standards.’ However, it said that it had reviewed videos flagged by Lieberman’s staff and removed those that ‘depicted gratuitous violence, advocated violence, or used hate speech.’ However, it did not remove videos that did not violate its Community Guidelines.

The Google response disagreed with Lieberman’s request that all videos referring to or featuring terrorist organizations be removed, including content that is legal, nonviolent, or non-hate speech. It said, ‘While we respect and understand his views, YouTube encourages free speech and defends everyone’s right to express unpopular points of view….users are always free to express their disagreement with a particular video on the site, by leaving comments or their own response video. That debate is healthy.’ The statement encouraged users to continue using the flagging tool in the Community Guidelines to report violent and hate-speech videos.

What’s Next?

The committee’s report concludes that, despite calls for a comprehensive approach to counterterrorism programs, ‘the U.S. government has not developed nor implemented a coordinated outreach and communications strategy to address the homegrown terrorism threat…’ It asks what new laws or tactics are needed to ‘prevent the spread of ideology in the United States,’ and what a communications and outreach strategy should be.

Several members of the House and Senate have floated a legislative proposal to address concerns similar to those raised in the report. S. 1959, a bill that its sponsors say is designed to study ‘violent radicalization’ and ‘extremist belief systems’ that can lead to homegrown terrorism, passed the House in late 2007 but has stalled in the Senate. Free speech advocates vigorously oppose the bill and say it would usher in an era of ‘thought crimes’ and violate the First Amendment.

Advocates say that for more appropriate answers, HSGAC staff should consult the recommendations from nonprofits, which suggest that ‘efforts to prevent people in the United States from turning to terrorism can only succeed if we protect the free speech, religious and associational rights of those against whom these efforts are directed.'”

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