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New Counterterrorism Program in Los Angeles: Suspicious Thought Reporting?

The FBI is teaming up with local police in Los Angeles to roll out a new approach to prevent domestic terrorism, but will it just multiply the problems associated with pre-existing SAR programs?

  • Michael Price
December 1, 2016

Cross-posted at Just Security.

The FBI is teaming up with local police in Los Angeles to roll out a new approach to prevent domestic terrorism, called RENEW for “Recognizing Extremist Network Early Warnings.” But there’s at least one big problem: no one really knows what kind of “early warnings” to look for. There is no shortage of opinions, but they have been roundly debunked as unscientific and ineffective. Moreover, the program builds on another controversial initiative: so-called “Suspicious Activity Reporting,” which encourages police to report certain non-criminal behavior as terrorism-related. Now, with RENEW, it seems that Los Angeles is poised to go a step further by asking community members to report people who appear to have “suspicious” thoughts and beliefs.

To understand how the RENEW program would handle such reports, it is helpful to start with some background on the Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) effort. The SAR program began in 2007 with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) but has since become a nationwide initiative, funded by the federal government and implemented by state and local police. But as the Brennan Center for Justice explained in a 2013 report, it has also been widely criticized for using a vague and expansive definition of “suspicious activity,” including innocuous activities like photography, looking through binoculars, and taking notes. Police departments retain these reports and funnel copies to regional intelligence “fusion centers,” which are also federally funded. Fusion centers then analyze and share the reports with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center through a network run by the Director of National Intelligence.  

In practice, SAR programs have opened the door to religious and ethnic discrimination, generating reports such as: “Suspicious ME [Middle Eastern] Males Buy Several Large Pallets of Water” or “Two middle eastern looking males taking photographs of Folsom Dam.” Unsurprisingly, they have also proven ineffective. Indeed, a report co-authored by LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Downing concluded that SARs have “flooded fusion centers, law enforcement, and other security entities with white noise,” which in turn “complicates the intelligence process and distorts resource allocation and deployment decisions.” Nonetheless, the SAR program remains a source of “intelligence” about local Muslim communities that officials at all levels of government continue to desire.

It is hard to imagine that the RENEW program could avoid the same pitfalls, however. RENEW is the Los Angeles manifestation of a federal effort known as “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE), which relies on a similarly broad and unscientific set of terrorism “indicators.” The LAPD has so far not disclosed the specific indicators it plans to use for the RENEW program, but its previous CVE efforts are instructive. According to LAPD training documents obtained by the Brennan Center, the characteristics of a potential terrorist include: people with “a strong need to belong to a social group” but who have “trouble fitting into a social context”; people whose “outrage over US or Western foreign policies prompt them to adopt and justify an extremist ideology”; and people who are “attracted to the perceived glory of fighting” and “[m]otivated by adventure and interest in action more than a desire to adhere to religious rules.”

Adopting such factors in the RENEW context would be akin to “Suspicious Thought Reporting,” swapping out SAR’s focus on “suspicious” activity for “suspicious” beliefs, ideas, and feelings.

Yet a presentation by Deputy Chief Downing shows that RENEW, like the SAR program, will send such reports from the public directly to the LAPD’s Major Crimes Division, which has the department’s primary responsibility for counterterrorism investigations. From there, the information flows to the regional intelligence fusion center, just like SAR. The fusion center then does a full work-up on the subject, including: “Social Media analysis, Criminal Records, Probation/Warrants, Weapons, Travel, Financial, and any other information that may be relevant.” At that point, the LAPD may recommend that the individual receive mental health treatment or social services. But whatever the outcome, the information flows back to the Major Crimes Division and the local FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force, which may choose to open an investigation or conduct intelligence operations – if it has not done so already. In fact, the FBI can use the RENEW process to gain additional information about people who are already under investigation. RENEW is not an alternative to law enforcement action, but a volatile supplement.

In short, RENEW seems likely to multiply the problems associated with SAR programs, including bias-based reporting, counterproductive “white noise,” and cracks in the trustbetween the police and the people they serve.

(Photo: ThinkStock)