As the U.S. government mulls ways to stem the rising threat of homegrown terrorism, some Republicans on Capitol Hill have privately raised concerns over new policies and tactics being considered. But counterterrorism officials say such resistance is undermining national security and can only be explained by a "misunderstanding" of the facts or political gamesmanship.
"We support the development of counter-radicalization policies that will protect our communities," four House Republicans recently told Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in a letter obtained by Fox News. "However, we are concerned about the development of policy that is based on poor research, flawed assumptions and insufficient inquiry. A flawed policy could ... worsen our radicalization problem."
Specifically, the letter expresses concern that counterterrorism officials could act prematurely and rely too heavily on a community-based approach, which embraces grassroots-level relationships and outreach programs to produce intelligence and steer vulnerable populations away from extremist rhetoric.
According to the June 3 letter, Napolitano has already sent officials to the United Kingdom to learn about the British government's "Preventing Violent Extremism" program, whose website describes local government and local communities as "the heart" of stopping radicalization.
"Supporters of the [program] are more readily found in Washington, D.C., than in the U.K.," said the letter, signed by two members of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Tex., and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. "We are concerned DHS [Department of Homeland Security] officials may be giving disproportionate focus to the U.K.'s model at the expense of other historical and contemporary counter-radicalization models."
Counterterrorism officials insist they're analyzing several models from around the world, adding that such "political attacks" impede potentially life-saving efforts to address a "new phase in the threat."
"While the federal government has put resources into threats originating from outside the country, [recent] events have shown that we need to build the same capabilities to deal with domestic threats," one law enforcement official who deals with terrorism issues said. "We can't always rely on the idea that a potential threat will be on the radar of the intelligence community or [federal law enforcement]."
In fact, an intelligence bulletin issued by DHS in the wake of the failed Times Square bombing said federal authorities "face an increased challenge in detecting terrorist plots underway" in the United States.
"State, local, tribal and private sector partners play a critical role in identifying suspicious activities and raising the awareness of federal counterterrorism officials," the May 21 bulletin said. "For example, purchases of possible operational materials, such as those made by ... [alleged Times Square bomber Faisal] Shahzad, are unlikely to come to the attention of federal officials unless reported by private sector and state, local and tribal partners."
A spokesman for McCaul said there is "nothing political" about the letter sent to Napolitano, describing it as "four members of [Congress] who are legitimately concerned about the approach DHS is taking."
The back-and-forth between Republicans and counterterrorism officials comes only weeks after a DHS-sanctioned advisory panel, tasked by Napolitano in February to look at the issue, completed a "working draft" of recommendations for countering homegrown threats, including threats from more than just Islamic extremists.
In its working draft, the Homeland Security Advisory Council advocates using methods that have already "proven effective in reducing and/or preventing" gang violence and other violent crime in parts of the country.
"Information-driven, community based violent crime reduction efforts should be recognized as a critical element of national efforts to protect the homeland from terrorism and other threats," says the 30-page draft of recommendations, which was obtained by Fox News.
The draft identifies "key elements" for applying such violent crime models to "ideological-motivated crime," including bolstering relationships between law enforcement and community members, and increasing the flow of information to community members.
In recent cases of homegrown terrorism, one DHS official said, suspects went through changes that were "very visible to the people around them," such as a "noticeable shift" in their personalities, a more outspoken anger against U.S. policy, or increased visits to "fringe" or "extremist" websites. The official said community members would be more inclined to report a potential threat to law enforcement if there is a stronger relationship between them.
As for sharing more threat-related information with community members, the official pointed to the case of at least 20 Somali-Americans from Minneapolis and elsewhere who were recruited over more than a year to join al-Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-linked group in East Africa. The official suggested some of the recruitment may have been prevented if families were informed earlier.
When federal authorities later met with families of the missing, "They said, 'We did not know that al-Shabaab was trying to recruit our kids over to Somalia until our kids disappeared,'" according to the official.
The council's recommendations also advocate that local police departments hire "more individuals representative of the communities served" and boost enforcement of hate crimes, calling it "one way for law enforcement to build trust with minority communities."
But working with local communities has its risks, which was noted during a House hearing in March titled "Working With Communities to Disrupt Terror Plots." Some Republicans worried authorities could "start giving legitimacy" to organizations that surreptitiously support terrorist groups, and McCaul, one of the four signatories on the recent letter to Napolitano, pointed to the case of Najibullah Zazi, the Colorado airport shuttle bus driver who planned a bomb attack on the New York City subway system.
"Working with a local imam actually backfired on law enforcement when he alerted Zazi that he was under government surveillance," McCaul said during the hearing. Zazi was eventually arrested and pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges.
While the council's working draft of recommendations does refer to "terrorism" several times, it leaves out mention of any religion, instead referring to "violent extremism" and "ideological-motivated crime," including the "Ft. Hood shooting," in which a Muslim Army major killed 13 in November 2009, and the "Holocaust museum shooting," when an elderly white supremacist killed a security guard in June 2009.
The recent letter to Napolitano, sent weeks after the House members' committees received their own copies of the working draft, asks for information on how the recommendations were developed and how DHS plans to incorporate them into counterterrorism policy.
"Each state across the United States executes community outreach efforts differently, based on the traits of the diverse Muslim communities they serve and protect," the letter said. "It is our belief that a one-size-fits-all program will not work in the U.S. ... We should base such serious policy on fact and informed analysis, not assumptions."
As McCaul spokesman Mike Rosen put it, the issue is "whether DHS is putting all of its eggs in this one U.K. basket."
The letter says that "reports from the U.K. on [the Preventing Violent Extremism program] note that while the concept is sound in theory, in reality it is failing to achieve its goals and is aggravating the U.K.'s radicalization problem."
But McCaul seemed to take a different tone during the House hearing in March.
"Western European nations are ahead of the United States, in my judgment, in community outreach strategies and in disrupting terror plots, because they realize the importance of combating radicalization, and they know they cannot arrest their way out of the problem," McCaul said in his opening statement. "The success of our European allies in engaging local religious, business and community leaders has direct links to reporting and disrupting terrorist attacks."
Rosen, the McCaul spokesman, said there is "no discrepancy" between the letter the congressman signed and his comments in March. McCaul was not referring to the United Kingdom's "Preventing Violent Extremism" program, instead referring to other models in Western Europe, according to Rosen, who did not specify which models McCaul was referencing.
According to a DHS official, the U.K. model was one of several from around the globe that DHS and the Homeland Security Advisory Council have reviewed.
DHS provided the council with reports on programs employed by the Los Angeles Police Department and authorities in Amsterdam, Australia and the United Kingdom, the official said. The U.K. report was accompanied by criticisms of the "Preventing Violent Extremism" program, including the assessment that British efforts focused too specifically on Muslims and subsequently caused a backlash within Muslim communities.
In their letter, the four Republicans -- including Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va. -- did agree with the Homeland Security Advisory Council on at least one thing: U.S. authorities and others have much to learn about radicalization.
"The current level of understanding regarding the sociology of 'radicalization' and 'extremism' is still immature," according to the council, which is comprised of experts and law enforcement officials from across the country, and counterterrorism officials from the Obama and Bush administrations. Likewise, the letter from the Republicans said there "continues to be differing views in the U.K. and the U.S. over how radicalization occurs and why some people are susceptible to radicalization while others are not."
The Republicans said such a lack of concrete information is why DHS needs to be careful before moving forward, but one DHS official said the lack of understanding is exactly why a community-based approach like the one recommended by the Homeland Security Advisory Council is the best way forward.
"The science is not really mature enough to base a whole policy on," the official said. "So we focus on what we can do: Address it when it's a community issue, before it's a national security issue."
Napolitano is expected to receive a final copy of the council's recommendations sometime in the next two weeks. How she decides to process them will likely shape future counterterrorism policy and inspire new programs, one DHS official said.
Meanwhile, her office is working on a response to the Republicans' letter.
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