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Countering Violent Extremism Programs in the Trump Era

A new Brennan Center analysis shows that the Trump administration has provided funds to surveil Muslim communities, as well as Black Lives Matter activists, LGBTQ Americans, immigrants, and refugees.

June 15, 2018
  • This page is part of the research project 'Coun­ter­ing Viol­ent Extrem­ism in the Trump Era.' Click here for more.

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.