Countering Violent Extremism Programs in the Trump Era

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Despite the prevalence of high-profile mass killings by white perpetrators, Muslims and other minority groups are explicitly targeted in 85 percent of Homeland Security Department grants devoted to Countering Violence Extremism (CVE) in the U.S. A new Brennan Center analysis shows that the Trump administration has provided funds to further surveil Muslim communities, as well as Black Lives Matter activists, LGBTQ Americans, immigrants, and refugees.

CVE programs, funded by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), have a long and troubled history dating to the Obama administration. These programs unfairly target Muslim communities as inherently susceptible to terrorism, with many citing political views and religious observance as signs of potential terrorist activity. They conflate community services and intelligence gathering, often under false pretenses, undermining trust between communities and state and local agencies charged with providing them with services. There is no evidence that such programs provide any national security benefit, which is unsurprising since they rely on theories and assumptions about terrorism that have long been debunked.  

The Brennan Center’s latest analysis shows over 70 percent of federally supported CVE programs are premised on the unsupported conclusion that diversity and the experience of discrimination in America are suggestive of a national security threat. In other words, rather than celebrating diversity as a source of strength or aiming to end discrimination, these CVE programs characterize them as a source of danger.

The Brennan Center’s analysis also uncovered three other troubling trends:

  1. The Trump administration has nearly tripled the amount of CVE funding that directly flows to law enforcement agencies (from approximately $764,000 to $2,340,000), opening the door to increased intelligence gathering under the guise of community-based programs.
  2. Despite the opposition from teachers, at least 14 out of the 26 programs funded by DHS target schools and students, some as young as 5 years old, effectively turning schools into surveillance hubs. Such programs often encourage schools to report broadly defined or undefined suspicious behavior.
  3. Empirical studies have disproven the notion that that terrorism is a mental health problem, and psychologists have cautioned against mental health professionals’ participation in CVE. Nevertheless, at least 12 DHS-funded CVE programs focus on facilitating mental health services for people identified as potential violent extremists.

The grants funded by DHS also demonstrate three fundamental deficiencies:

  1. By and large, they do not address the potential impacts to privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties as required by DHS’s own request for proposals, much less propose concrete safeguards. Only 12 out of 26 successful CVE grantees even mention the issue. Six indicate that safeguards will be put in place. None specify actual safeguards, making it impossible to assess their efficacy.
  2. The actual recipients of CVE funds are frequently obscured because about half of the funds allocated are earmarked for pass-through organizations, consultants, or contractors. Just under half of the funds earmarked for these entities (approximately 45 percent) will be distributed to unidentified groups and individuals.
  3. Measuring the impact of CVE programs has long been a challenge and only a handful of the grantees have adequate measures in place to measure whether their activities reduce the risk of violent extremism. Many intervention programs fail to measure how often individuals reported were found to pose a threat or the nature and results of any interventions that were carried out. And CVE online counter-messaging programs may evaluate the content and reach of their programs through number of clicks, likes, re-tweets, or social shares, but they seldom evaluate the overall impact.

The already considerable flaws of CVE have been exacerbated by a Trump administration that is predisposed to view minority communities as a threat to America. In community centers, places of worship, and even schools, CVE provides an excuse and a tool to surveil Americans whose only crime is belonging to a group that faces discrimination.