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Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act Raises Fears of New Government Crackdown on Dissent

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A little-noticed anti-terrorism bill quietly making its way through Congress is raising fears of a new affront on activism and constitutional rights. The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act was passed in an overwhelming 400-to-6 House vote last month. Critics say it could herald a new government crackdown on dissident activity under the guise of fighting terrorism. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A little-noticed anti-terrorism bill quietly making its way through Congress is raising fears of a new affront on activism and constitutional rights. The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act was passed in an overwhelming 400-to-6 House vote last month. Critics say it could herald a new government crackdown on dissent and infiltration of universities under the guise of fighting terrorism.

The bill would establish two government-appointed bodies to study, monitor, and propose ways of curbing what it calls homegrown terrorism and extremism in the United States. The first body, a national commission, would convene for eighteen months. The university-based, quote, “Center for Excellence” would follow, bringing together academic specialists to recommend laws and other measures.

Critics say the bill’s definition of “extremism” and “terrorism” is too vague and its mandate even more broad. Under a false veil of expertise and independence, they say, the government-appointed commissions could be used as ideological cover to push through harsher laws.

Following last month’s approval in the House, the Senate version is expected to go before the Judiciary Committee this week.

Two guests join us now in the firehouse studio. Kamau Franklin is an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. CCR has been closely following the measure. And Jessica Lee with us. She’s a journalist with The Indypendent, put out by the New York Indymedia Center. She has an extensive piece in the latest issue of The Indypendent. It’s called “Bringing the War on Terrorism Home: Congress Considers How to 'Disrupt' Radical Movements in the United States.”

Jessica, let’s begin with you. Lay out what this bill is.

JESSICA LEE: Sure. Thank you for having me.

When I first heard about this bill, I immediately did a Google news search, and I was alarmed to find that no media was talking about it whatsoever. And so, I looked into the bill, and there were two things that immediately jumped out at me. The first was that there’s a broad use of definitions. And the second is, who would they study? What does this mean?

And so, I’d first like to point out the two definitions that many people I interviewed had problems with. And if you wouldn’t mind me just reading them, the first is “violent radicalization.” This term means the process of adapting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically-based violence to advance political, religious or social change. Many people I interviewed were very concerned about this. And the second definition, which is “homegrown terrorism,” talks about the planned use, threatened use, of force or violence by a group to intimidate or coerce the government of the United States.

And when you think about these definitions, what does that mean? And when you look at the activism going on today, is there planned use of force or coercion going on? When you look at what’s going on in Olympia, with individuals sitting down and blocking war shipments, when you look at CODEPINK going into Congress and disrupting activities, could this be included in this definition? And that’s what I went out to try to find in this article.

AMY GOODMAN: Kamau Franklin, your concerns?

KAMAU KARL FRANKLIN: I mean, somewhere, as Jessica stated, the broad definitions allow for new laws that can be passed. that can basically equate social justice activism, civil disobedience to terrorism in some ways. So, in the past, if someone got charged for blocking a street and they got charged for disorderly conduct or obstruction of governmental administration, now, after this commission is done, if new laws are passed, with the broadness of the definitions, the feds can now say, “Well, wait a minute, you threatened the use of violence or threatened the use of force. And that, by itself, can mean that we can now charge you with federal terrorist crimes, because we don’t agree with the type of demonstration that you were doing, we don’t agree with the point of view that you were having.” So it’s the broad-baseness, the breadth, the scope of the inquiry, which is really threatening for potential activists, people concerned with social justice issues and civil libertarians, something that people should really, really be concerned about.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the groups you see targeted.

KAMAU KARL FRANKLIN: Well, I see groups as anti — folks that come out against the globalization, anti-globalization activists, social justice activists, animal rights activists. I think the breadth is astounding, in terms of like what can be covered. I don’t think there’s any limits placed on who can be targeted by this particular act. I think certain groups have already been singled out, like folks who are fighting against some of the globalization measures that are happening. And I think that’s really going to be scary, because the sponsors of this bill are really targeting dissent more than they’re targeting anything else.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the groups, Jessica. In particular, you’ve mentioned, for example, Critical Mass —


AMY GOODMAN: — the cycling movement all over the country.

JESSICA LEE: Right. When I started to look into this bill, what I found was a great influence by the Rand Corporation, which is a government-affiliated think tank. And twice, Brian Michael Jenkins, who’s an expert on terrorism, gave testimony in the House on this bill.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s from the Rand.

JESSICA LEE: He’s from the Rand, yes. And they largely tried to push this bill through on this idea that there are these extreme political Islamists in our country, and they didn’t do a very good job stating the actual threat. But when you look through the Rand Corporation’s other reports, in 2005 they had a report called “Trends in Terrorism.” And they had one chapter called “Homegrown Terrorism Threats.” And when you look in that chapter, there’s nothing about political Islamists. In fact, it’s all about anti-globalization people on the right and left side of the spectrum, the animal rights and the environmental movements, and anarchists. And, to me, I found that very interesting that that testimony was not mentioned at all when this bill was passed, that this legislation is not just going to look at so-called violent religious people, but also people who have very strong opinions against this administration.

AMY GOODMAN: In terms of the Rand Corporation, it was Daniel Ellsburg who worked for the Rand Corporation, when he had that many thousands of pages on the history of Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers. So, Rand is the key — what would you say? Writer of the bill? And the Congress member who’s most involved in this?

JESSICA LEE: Right. Representative Jane Harman, a Democrat from California, has had a lengthy relationship with the Rand Corporation. And I called several times to get comment from the Rand Corporation, and they said that all of their experts are out of town and unavailable due to the holidays. So I didn’t find out if they indeed did write the bill themselves. But what we do know is that they have a great influence and that they have had in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: Kamau Franklin, yes?

KAMAU KARL FRANKLIN: I just wanted to add to the Rand comment, particularly with Brian Michael Jenkins, a supposed terrorist expert, who’s mainly known, according to Rand, as someone who helped the United States in counterinsurgency measures in Vietnam, which is one of his claims to fame. But in addition to that, he wrote a book, and in his own book, I just want to quote a passage, says, “In their international campaign, the jihadists will seek common ground with leftist, anti-American, and anti-globalization forces, who will in turn see, in radical Islam, comrades against a mutual foe.” So, I think, once again, what Jessica is talking about is that the breadth of it is not focused in on supposed terrorists who are threatening the United States, but folks who have real concerns about where this country is heading, folks who express dissent in various different ways, including demonstrations and marches, and that these are the folks who this bill potentially could target.

AMY GOODMAN: The Baltimore Sun has a column called “Here Comes the Thought Police.” What do you mean, “thought police”?

KAMAU KARL FRANKLIN: Well, I think they’re saying “thought,” because one of the important aspects of this bill also is that it concentrates on the internet as a place where terrorist rhetoric or ideas have been coming across to the United States and to American citizens. So, if, once again, this bill reaches to become a law and a study is done, who is to say that now, after the study is done, the recommendations won’t get made to say, “Let’s curb how the internet is being used. Let’s put filters on what gets to come into the country.” You spoke a little bit about Al Jazeera. Imagine, after they take a look at this and how Al Jazeera is viewed, as one particular area where they say, “Well, let’s stop that even from” — I mean, they stopped it from coming in over cable, but “Let’s stop that from coming in over the internet.” And that could be happening to thousands of websites in the near future.

AMY GOODMAN: And local-federal cooperation among police, Kamau?

KAMAU KARL FRANKLIN: There’s a New York study that was done that we think also was a basis for some of where this bill came from. And these type of operations go hand-in-hand with, of course, Joint Task Force. So, we truly would expect, when they go around and they seek out experts and they talk to folks, that they will be talking to local police officials and, again, looking for ways in which they can work together on this, where they can — the local officials can seek a federal funding, and they will come out, and they will try to use this again and say, “Let’s target these particular groups in our area that we know about.” Once again, no basis for terrorism, but “they have been dissenters. They have had their internet sites reviewed, and we don’t like those.”

AMY GOODMAN: Jessica Lee, the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act was passed in the House 400-to-6. That’s a very big margin.

JESSICA LEE: Correct. It was actually passed under what’s called the suspension of the rules, which is a provision that the House uses to pass bills very quickly, and these are usually bills that are deemed uncontroversial and don’t need more debate. So we saw a very quick vote. Six people voted against. One was presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. He was unavailable for comment, unfortunately. So what we’re seeing is not only the Republican Congress giving the Bush administration, you know, a swath of powers to confront the war on terrorism, but we’re now seeing the Democratically-led Congress also extending these powers.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the Center for Excellence.

JESSICA LEE: Right. The Center of Excellence would be one of the — there’s already eight in existence, under the Department of Homeland Security, and they’re based in universities. And they bring together scholars from around the country that are, quote, “experts” in a bunch of different fields to study a particular thing. So this one who would want to study the moment in which somebody who’s a radical or an extremist will turn from being peaceful, having those beliefs, which are protected under the First Amendment, to when they might become violent. And I found that very interesting, because if you want to study the moment in which somebody is going to turn violent, don’t you need to study them before they turn violent? And if so, aren’t you studying First Amendment beliefs?

And I talked to a couple scholars who study this type of thing. One is Bron Taylor, who has studied the radical environmental movement for about fifteen years. And he says, if you really want to understand this stuff, you have to go into the field, you have to make human interactions, you have to build trust, and you have to talk to them. And it takes a long time. And these people are very wary to talk to academics in the first place. So, we’re seeing a Center of Excellence that’s supposed to bring together people to study these very people that are skeptical of academics.

And the other interesting thing is that the national commission is mandated to produce three reports, each six months apart. The first report is supposed to come out after six months. So, how in the world can they possibly study these very complex issues? They want to study the social, criminal, political, psychological and economic roots of terrorism. How are they supposed to study this in six months and come up with these recommendations, which in fact are going to be used to prevent, disrupt and mitigate domestic terrorism in six months?

AMY GOODMAN: Kamau Franklin, Center for Constitutional Rights, what are you doing about this?

KAMAU KARL FRANKLIN: Well, on our website, we have a lot more information about what this bill is. In fact, we have the different versions up for people to start to view. We’re going to call for some actions in the next couple of weeks. We probably agree that at this stage the Senate is also going to pass their version of the bill. And so, what’s going to really happen and where the fight is going to really start to take place is in the forming of this commission, watching this commission, responding to its inquiries, and, in fact, doing demonstrations against this commission. So, we think that’s where the real fight is going to be now, is in the grassroots, who are going to have to come out and really talk about how they think this commission will not really study terrorism but will study them. And so, we want to provide as much information as we can on who should be the targets of some of this work that will have to be done. So, when people go to the website at Center for —, they will start to find some of that information. The next couple of weeks, we’ll really start to target and hone in on who should be thought about.

AMY GOODMAN: Kamau Karl Franklin of CCR, Center for Constitutional Rights, and Jessica Lee of The Indypendent, I want to thank you both very much for being with us.

JESSICA LEE: Thank you.

KAMAU KARL FRANKLIN: Thank you very much for having me.

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