IMAGE: Protester Brandon McTear holds a sign and the American Flag as demonstrators gather to protest against U.S President Donald Trump’s executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven primarily Muslim countries from entering the United States during a rally in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. February 4, 2017 REUTERS/Tom Mihalek
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A dozen Democratic U.S. senators on Thursday denounced a Trump administration plan to revamp a government program on countering violent extremism, saying narrowing its focus solely to Islamic threats could jeopardize security and may be illegal.
Restructuring the program to omit white supremacists and other non-Islamist groups “would severely damage our credibility with foreign allies and partners as an honest broker in the fight against violent extremism, and prove divisive in communities across our country,” Senators Cory Booker, Brian Schatz, and 10 others wrote in a letter addressed to cabinet secretaries.
Reuters reported last week that Republican President Donald Trump’s administration wants to rename the “Countering Violent Extremism,” or CVE, program introduced by the previous Democratic administration of Barack Obama to “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.”
The potential name change reflects a broader goal of Trump’s to exclude groups in the program’s purview such as white supremacist, whose followers have also carried out bombings and shootings in the United States, five sources familiar with the matter said.
CVE aimed to address the causes of why some people are drawn to violence or extremism by providing grants and other resources to community groups to develop prevention efforts, including using social media.
Earlier this month, Trump signed an executive order temporarily blocking travel to the United States by people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, prompting a global outcry and charges from his critics that he was advancing a white nationalist agenda.
Trump has rejected characterizations of the order as a “Muslim ban” and said it is necessary to protect national security.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials who work on CVE met on Tuesday to continue discussions about the proposed changes, according to two sources who have worked closely with DHS on the program.
Refocusing CVE efforts largely on Islam would “alienate Muslim organizations and individuals in the United States,” the senators wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, and Wade Warren, acting administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“It will also put U.S. service members, diplomats, development practitioners, and citizens traveling the world at significant risk, and will increase the likelihood of more attacks,” the letter said, and could “violate constitutional protections and the rights of American citizens.”
At least three community organizations have already declined funding collectively totaling nearly $1.4 million awarded under the auspices of the CVE task force, citing concerns about the Trump administration’s posture toward Muslims and the possible changes to the program.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer declined to comment on the reported changes last week, but said during a briefing that the program was initially intended to focus on “rooting out radical Islamic terrorism.”
Several former DHS officials told Reuters the CVE program was not conceived with that goal, although it has been criticized by even some supporters as tacitly too focused on Muslims or largely ineffective.
(Reporting by Dustin Volz in Washington, additional reporting by Julia Edwards Ainsley and Kristina Cooke; editing by Grant McCool)
IMAGE: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting about the Supreme Court at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
WASHINGTON/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – The Trump administration wants to revamp and rename a U.S. government program designed to counter all violent ideologies so that it focuses solely on Islamist extremism, five people briefed on the matter told Reuters.
The program, “Countering Violent Extremism,” or CVE, would be changed to “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism,” the sources said, and would no longer target groups such as white supremacists who have also carried out bombings and shootings in the United States.
Such a change would reflect Trump’s election campaign rhetoric and criticism of former President Barack Obama for being weak in the fight against Islamic State and for refusing to use the phrase “radical Islam” in describing it. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for attacks on civilians in several countries.
The CVE program aims to deter groups or potential lone attackers through community partnerships and educational programs or counter-messaging campaigns in cooperation with companies such as Google and Facebook.
Some proponents of the program fear that rebranding it could make it more difficult for the government to work with Muslims already hesitant to trust the new administration, particularly after Trump issued an executive order last Friday temporarily blocking travel to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Still, the CVE program, which focuses on U.S. residents and is separate from a military effort to fight extremism online, has been criticized even by some supporters as ineffective.
A source who has worked closely with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on the program said Trump transition team members first met with a CVE task force in December and floated the idea of changing the name and focus.
In a meeting last Thursday, attended by senior staff for DHS Secretary John Kelly, government employees were asked to defend why they chose certain community organizations as recipients of CVE program grants, said the source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.
Although CVE funding has been appropriated by Congress and the grant recipients were notified in the final days of the Obama administration, the money still may not go out the door, the source said, adding that Kelly is reviewing the matter.
The department declined comment. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Some Republicans in Congress have long assailed the program as politically correct and ineffective, asserting that singling out and using the term “radical Islam” as the trigger for many violent attacks would help focus deterrence efforts.
Others counter that branding the problem as “radical Islam” would only serve to alienate more than three million Americans who practice Islam peacefully.
Many community groups, meanwhile, had already been cautious about the program, partly over concerns that it could double as a surveillance tool for law enforcement.
Hoda Hawa, director of policy for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said she was told last week by people within DHS that there was a push to refocus the CVE effort from tackling all violent ideology to only Islamist extremism.
“That is concerning for us because they are targeting a faith group and casting it under a net of suspicion,” she said.
Another source familiar with the matter was told last week by a DHS official that a name change would take place. Three other sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said such plans had been discussed but were unable to attest whether they had been finalized.
The Obama administration sought to foster relationships with community groups to engage them in the counterterrorism effort. In 2016, Congress appropriated $10 million in grants for CVE efforts and DHS awarded the first round of grants on Jan. 13, a week before Trump was inaugurated.
Among those approved were local governments, city police departments, universities, and non-profit organizations. In addition to organizations dedicated to combating Islamic State’s recruitment in the United States, grants also went to Life After Hate, which rehabilitates former neo-Nazis and other domestic extremists.
Just in the past two years, authorities blamed radical and violent ideologies as the motives for a white supremacist’s shooting rampage inside a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina and Islamist militants for shootings and bombings in California, Florida, and New York.
One grant recipient, Leaders Advancing & Helping Communities, a Michigan-based group led by Lebanese-Americans, has declined a $500,000 DHS grant it had sought, according to an email the group sent that was seen by Reuters. A representative for the group confirmed the grant had been rejected, but declined further comment.
“Given the current political climate and cause for concern, LAHC has chosen to decline the award,” said the email, which was sent last Thursday, a day before Trump issued his immigration order, which was condemned at home and abroad as discriminating against Muslims while the White House said it was to “to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals.”
(Reporting by Julia Edwards and Dustin Volz in Washington, Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington; editing by Jonathan Weber and Grant McCool)
IMAGE: President Trump, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, at the Homeland Security headquarters. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
In the wake of the horrific attack in Nice yesterday, Newt Gingrich appeared on Fox News to assert that “Western civilization is in a war” with Islam and that individuals “of a Muslim background” in America should be tested for their adherence to sharia: “If they believe in sharia, they should be deported.”
As David A. Graham of The Atlantic has pointed out, though, this is impracticable, unconstitutional, and incredibly intolerant. Although it is often used in American political parlance to signify extremism, “sharia” refers to the Muslim code of conduct, not an official set of laws or a declaration of war.
Deporting individuals based on their religious beliefs seems about as explicit an example of a violation of the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion as you can find… aside from most of the rest of Trump’s ideas.
Saying Muslims are OK if they don’t believe sharia is like saying Christians are OK if they don’t believe the Gospel https://t.co/dR4Er5y4uu
— David A. Graham (@GrahamDavidA) July 15, 2016
The man who is not Donald Trump’s VP pick also has a pretty extensive history of comments targeting Muslims, even though prior to the mid-2000s he had relationships with conservative Muslim groups and even helped create a Muslim prayer space on Capitol Hill.
Taking to Twitter today to defend his remarks, Gingrich derided what he called the media’s “amazing distortions” of his remarks, announcing that he would host a Facebook Live conversation at noon. Check it out here.
But the fact remains: Prosecuting a religion is un-American. There’s no way around it.
Would Gingrich use the same logic to prosecute visitors to white supremacist websites like StormFront, or anyone who uses the hashtag #whitegenocide? Right wing extremists commit terrorism, too — just as much as any radical cult. Does Gingrich want thought police?
Photo: YouTube/Fox News
About The National Memo
The National Memo is a political newsletter and website that combines the spirit of investigative journalism with new technology and ideas. We cover campaigns, elections, the White House, Congress, and the world with a fresh outlook. Our own journalism — as well as our selections of the smartest stories available every day — reflects a clear and strong perspective, without the kind of propaganda, ultra-partisanship and overwrought ideology that burden so much of our political discourse.