Civil liberatarians are worried that a little-known anti-terrorism bill now making its way through Congress with virtually no debate could be planting the seeds of another USA Patriot Act, which was hurriedly enacted into law after the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001.
The “Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act,” co-authored by the former chair of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, Jane Harmon (D-California), passed the House by an overwhelming 400-6 vote last month, and will soon be considered by the Senate .
The bill’s co-author is Congressman David Reichert (R-Washington). The Senate version is under construction by Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is chaired by the hawkish Connecticut independent, Sen. Joe Lieberman.
Harmon is chair of the House Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee.
Civil liberties groups including the American Civil Liberties Uinion (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) say the measure could herald a new government crackdown on dissident activity and infiltration of universities under the guise of fighting terrorism.
The CCR’s Kamau Franklin, a Racial Justice Fellow, told us, “This measure looks benign enough, but we should be concerned about where it will lead. It may well result in recommendations for new laws that criminalize radical thought and peaceful dissent, posing as academic study.”
Franklin added, “Crimes such as conspiracy or incitement to violence are already covered by both State and Federal statute. There is no need for additional criminal laws.”
He speculated that Congress “may want to get this measure passed and signed into law to head off peaceful demonstrations” at the upcoming Republican and Demoncratic Party conventions. “And no Congress person of either political party wants to vote against this bill and get labelled as being soft on terrorism.”
Harman’s bill would convene a 10-member national commission to study “violent radicalization” (defined as “the process of adopting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious, or social change”) and “homegrown terrorism” (defined as “the use, planned use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual born, raised, or based and operating primarily within the United States […] to intimidate or coerce the United States government, the
civilian population of the United States, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”).
The bill also directs the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to designate a “center of excellence,” a university-based research center where academics, policy-makers, members of the private sector and other stakeholders can collaborate to better understand and prevent radicalization and homegrown terrorism. Some experts are concerned that politics will unduly influence which institution DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff will designate.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Chertoff was head of the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice (DOJ), and played a key role in implementing the Department’s roundup of hundreds of Muslims who were detained without charge, frequently abused, and denied access to legal counsel.
Critics of Harmon’s bill point out that Commission members would all be appointed by a high-ranking elected official. Those making these appointments would include the President, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Speaker and ranking member of the House, the Majority and Minority leaders of the Senate, and senior members of the House and Senate committees overseeing homeland security.
Critics also fear that the bill’s definitions of “extremism” and “terrorism” are too vague, its mandate too broad, and government-appointed commissions could be used as ideological cover to push through harsher laws.
Congressional sponsors of the bill claim it is limited in scope. "Though not a silver bullet, the legislation will help the nation develop a better understanding of the forces that lead to homegrown terrorism, and the steps we can take to stop it,". Harman told Congress.