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DHS blocked vital research on domestic threats, say terrorism experts

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/15/2022 Hannah Allam

As bloody, hate-fueled attacks rose in 2019, Homeland Security officials pledged to step up their response to domestic terrorism, funding in-depth research that would help them understand the scale of the problem.

“Accurate nationwide statistics will better position DHS to protect communities from these threats,” the department said in a strategy report.

More than two years later, that data collection has not begun, and $10 million languishes unused because of internal disputes over privacy protocols, according to researchers and an official of the Department of Homeland Security.

Academics who received DHS contracts say their projects to study violent attacks and extremist movements have been delayed, some effectively scrapped, because of an endless loop of privacy concerns that typically would not apply to work based on open-source records — unclassified materials such as news reports. In interviews, researchers described the roadblocks they have faced as “crazytown,” “mind-boggling” and “beyond logic.”

Their accounts were confirmed by a DHS official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely describe a sensitive internal debate. The official said around 20 research projects funded by Homeland Security faced varying degrees of delays because of rulings by the DHS’s Privacy Office that deemed them high-risk even after researchers repeatedly explained that the information they intended to use was widely available to the public. At least $2 million of funding has been returned unused; $10 million more is essentially frozen unless privacy officers approve the research.

After so many months of paralysis, the official said, DHS relations with top terrorism scholars have soured, and DHS leaders are left with a gap in data — just as national attention is again focused on political violence, which is at the root of the ongoing trials in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the recent assault of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, and far-right threats around the midterm elections.

Those issues are likely to come up this week as Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas makes public appearances to address the government’s response to violent extremism, a national security priority for the Biden administration. In June 2021, the need for more research was spelled out in the country’s first national strategy for countering domestic terrorism, which noted that understanding the threat “requires facilitating a systematic provision of information and data.”

So far, that information-gathering work has not been carried out.

“Right now, if the secretary of Homeland Security turns to us and says, ‘Last year, how many serious attacks based on ideology or grievance happened?’ we can’t answer those fundamental questions,” the DHS official said. “We don’t know.”

Homeland Security declined to address specific examples of delayed contracts or to explain the privacy concerns. In a statement, a DHS spokesperson said that addressing domestic violent extremism is a top priority and cited interagency intelligence-sharing, prevention-focused grant programs, and a dedicated domestic terrorism branch within the Intelligence and Analysis office.

“DHS engages in a community-based approach to prevent terrorism and targeted violence, and does so in ways that protect privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties, and that adhere to all applicable laws,” the statement said.

Within DHS, the official speaking anonymously said, one view is that privacy officers are trying to shield Mayorkas from potentially controversial research at a time when federal agencies are criticized by both major political parties for their response to political violence. Republicans in Congress have portrayed the effort to investigate domestic terrorism as a thought-police exercise that infringes on First Amendment rights. Some Democrats, too, have expressed wariness of federal overreach, citing the civil liberties violations of the war-on-terror years.

DHS is already under scrutiny because of the rollback of plans to fight disinformation and for reports that authorities sought dossiers on protesters in Portland, Ore. — indications of how easily counterterrorism work can be politicized.

The academic researchers on contract with DHS said they share those concerns, stressing that the recent transgressions make it awkward to push back on privacy oversight. But the researchers say that in long Zoom meetings and months of correspondence with DHS, they have explained that their work is different: It is governed by a code of ethics, reviewed by their universities and built from data that is already available to the public. The contracts come from the innovation-focused Science and Technology Directorate inside DHS, not the enforcement side. Nevertheless, researchers said, DHS privacy officers have ruled that collecting and analyzing public information is too risky.

“It’s going to be equally or more controversial that we’re doing nothing. That we’re not doing our jobs: understanding these problems, how to describe them, or how to respond to them,” the DHS official said.

In one example of a stalled project, a University of Maryland terrorism research team was awarded $2.6 million in September 2020 to build a database of nationwide attacks based on publicly available information — essentially, a digital repository of newspaper clippings. Researchers would then analyze the data to determine trends such as methods of attack or motivations for attacks.

That project was deemed by DHS privacy officers to be a “high risk” information-gathering effort, and the 14-month contract ran out in January without a scrap of data collected, according to lead researcher Erin Miller, who provided corroborating emails from DHS. In September, the university returned $1.25 million of unused funds to DHS, Miller said. Her team has another contract proposal pending and expects to hit the same wall.

“We’re months into this now, and I’m sort of trying to get a sense, like, is this real?” Miller said. “Is this a genuine concern about privacy or does someone just not want this research to happen?”

Miller is a veteran researcher who for years has overseen the Global Terrorism Database, or GTD, a vast archive now funded by the Defense Department. Her proposal to Homeland Security was a U.S.-focused spinoff of the GTD that would take details from public reports of attacks and analyze them across various categories: motivation, targets, deaths, injuries, weapons, and so on.

“It’s not a wild-goose chase in terms of trying to track down information on random individuals,” Miller said. “Everything we collect data on has to have some nexus to violence, a violent attack.”

Miller said the information would be a guide for policymakers studying the evolving threat of ideologically motivated violence, and could be useful in the training of law enforcement agencies and emergency medical workers. The response from DHS privacy officers, Miller said, was that public news articles might contain names of people participating in activities protected by the First Amendment. Miller said she was stunned; not only was the information public, but there had been no plans to include source material in the data collection.

“It’s literally the news,” Miller said. “We’re using the news. It’s the opposite of private.”

On Nov. 1, a month after Miller briefed privacy officials on her methodology, she received a message from DHS that once again blocked the work: “Our subject matter experts have reaffirmed their stance that there is a high risk of unauthorized access to or disclosure of sensitive information.”

The message, Miller said, was that her project is “basically dead.”

“It’s very difficult at this point to interpret what is happening as something other than ‘DHS as an entity doesn’t want this to move forward,’ ” Miller said.

Mayorkas has said “domestic violent extremism poses the most lethal and persistent terrorism-related threat to our country today,” an assessment that still stands, he told a congressional hearing Tuesday. The DHS official and researchers said they were unsure whether Mayorkas is aware that his privacy officers are seen as hampering an effort the department has called a priority.

The lack of reliable data on violent-extremist threats has persisted for years despite demands from Congress and advocacy groups for improvement. Under the Trump administration, Homeland Security released a counterterrorism report that acknowledged a growing threat, but could not offer hard numbers on attacks because “current national-level statistics on terrorism and targeted violence in all its forms are not comprehensive.”

To fill that information gap, DHS pledged to “prioritize resources toward the collection of this data” with the help of universities and nongovernmental organizations. The overture was welcomed by researchers who had watched with alarm as the Trump administration infused its hard-right politics into the counterterrorism effort, insisting on portraying far-left “antifa” militants as equal to the exponentially deadlier far right.

“It’s so, so important to be able to have public, transparent, independent and objective numbers and research about this stuff because that’s what prevents people with a political agenda from saying, ‘It’s all antifa!’ or ‘It’s all Nazis!’ ” the DHS official said. “It allows people to say, ‘We know what it is because we’ve seen the trends.’ ”

Another long-stalled project is led by John Horgan, a professor and the director of the Violent Extremism Research Group at Georgia State University. In 2019, a few months after an attack in Canada drew attention to misogynistic “incel” communities, Horgan asked DHS officials whether they were researching the movement. They were not, so they invited Horgan to apply to do so. He was awarded a $125,000 contract for a one-year study that would offer “a baseline view” of incels — the term is shorthand for “involuntary celibates” — and their violent subset.

“I’m not in the business of trying to collect identities or trying to expose people,” Horgan said. “I’m interested in the message, the content: What are they saying? What are the ways in which violent incels are normalizing and routinizing the subjugation of women?”

The project start date was in September 2020. About a month later, Horgan recalled, his DHS contacts called to say, “Hold on a sec, we have to put the brakes on” because the Privacy Office had questions.

Horgan said that such reviews are normal and are welcomed as a safeguard.

“There may be a perception that we’re trying to work around privacy issues,” he said. “On the contrary, we don’t do this research unless there are privacy concerns in there.”

But in this case, Horgan said, the questions stretched on and on. For more than two years, Horgan has been in “bureaucratic limbo with the privacy folks.” His research has not begun, but he remains under contract and regularly sends DHS emails seeking to resolve the situation.

“It just goes into a black hole and nothing happens. In two or three months I get a response back saying, ‘Okay, privacy has additional concerns,’ ” Horgan said. “It got to the point where I said to my DHS contacts: This is just not worth this. I came here with a very serious intention to get some research done on what I see as a potential emerging threat.”

In a last-ditch effort to convince the privacy holdouts, Horgan put together a detailed primer that he presented to officials over the summer. He said he tried to make the basics crystal clear, “explaining research, privacy and ethics as you would to a 10-year-old.” He walked the officials through the process, noting that the work involved no human subjects, no automated data-scraping tools, no third parties, no raw-data dumps.

“That was back in August,” Horgan said. “I have heard nothing.”

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