By Alice LoCicero, PhD and J. Wesley Boyd, MD, PhD

Is CVE the new Cointel-Pro?  Kinda seems that way.

Cointel-Pro (short for Counterintelligence Program) was launched “…in 1956 to disrupt the activities of the Communist Party of the United States. In the 1960s, it was expanded to include a number of other domestic groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Black Panther Party . . . Cointel-Pro was later rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging first amendment rights and for other reasons” (1).

Thanks to the courage of a small group of young adults, a brave reporter, and a determined editor, Cointel-Pro was exposed and stopped. You can learn about their work in the book The Burglary, by Betty Metsger or watch the documentary film called simply 1971. 

But if the FBI learned anything from the rightful criticism of its Cointel-Pro, it has since apparently forgotten it. Currently, the FBI, in collaboration with the National Institute of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and other government agencies, is again launching programs that are at best doomed--and at worst designed—to disrupt the Muslim communities in cities where they are launched.

Under the umbrella term Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) the programs include attempts, with no basis in evidence, to predict who might some day become violent due to a passionate investment in a cause. In the absence of evidence (2), the agencies are now asking people close to young Muslims to report to law enforcement, including local and federal enforcement agencies, on kids who they just think (note, without any knowledge of what the actual signs are) might be on a path towards extremism.

In a statement that would be funny if its consequences were not so dire, one so-called expert says he thinks that research on how to identify future terrorists should include attention to mental health issues. “I’m convinced that a good chunk of these cases that we’ve seen here in the United States have roots in some sort of social dysfunction or mental health issue.  I’m not a professional psychologist but that’s what I believe in my bones."  This same individual runs an organization that has received, according to his resume, $11.5 million dollars in federal grants.  

Is believing it “in his bones” the basis for reporting someone to the FBI?  Other “experts” are calling for research on this topic as well.  If the research were conducted and led to a psychological profile of someone who might ultimately commit violent acts, it would be a rough profile at best and would not have anything near perfect specificity or sensitivity—that is, it would not screen out everyone who is not at risk, nor would it screen in everyone who was, leaving us with the proverbially dangerous “little bit of knowledge.”

Various reports of ill-advised FBI efforts to catch would-be future terrorists include violations of human rights such as surveillance and infiltration of communities, creating and facilitating “terrorist” plots—which they then “interrupt,” and so-called  “Shared Responsibility Committees:”

The FBI’s idea is to have social service workers, teachers, mental health professionals, religious figures, and others interdict young people they believe are on a path toward radicalization. The program was first revealed last November, and while details remain scant, it is widely believed to have been developed along the lines of similar “anti-radicalization” programs in the United Kingdom. (2)

Worst of all, programs like Cointel-Pro violate First Amendment rights and disproportionately affect Muslim communities. They are at best misguided, and at worst, vicious. It is therefore not surprising that various organizations, including the ACLU (3) and the Brennan Center at New York University School of Law (4) have criticized CVE programs.

As mental health professionals, we are obligated to take action if we know that someone is imminently at risk of harming him/herself or others, such as when someone says, “After I leave your office I am going to try to kill someone” or “I am planning to kill myself in the next several days.”  But taking action along these lines is very different from what is being advocated by CVE programs.

We will not be participating in any CVE programs, and we strongly encourage other mental health professionals to also refuse for the following reasons:

We will not spy on our patients.

We do not read minds, and we know that none of us can predict the future.

We know of several non-punitive approaches to helping ALL kids resist ALL recruitment to violence.  They are not high tech and they do not involve the FBI. They involve listening and talking to kids, mentoring kids, educating kids and helping them find paths to meaningful lives, honoring their communities here and any communities they are connected with in the US or elsewhere, and taking their grievances seriously.

We are as saddened and troubled by violence around the world as most others, but those feelings should not lead us down a path that includes the trampling of human rights or turning health care professionals into government informants.

NB: Alice LoCicero will be speaking on this topic at the American Psychological Association  Division of Peace Psychology Hospitality Suite in the Hyatt Regency Hotel  at the APA Convention in Denver, CO on August 6, 2016, at 4 PM. All are invited. (The specific suite number will be available at the time of registration for the convention.)  Her presentation is entitled: Countering the FBI‘s “Countering Violent Extremism” Programs:  Peace Psychologists Must Find a Better Way.

Alice LoCicero, Ph.D., is a board certified clinical psychologist and researcher. Co-founder and first president of the Society for Terrorism Research, she has written two books on youth recruited to terrorism and nine articles and chapters on terrorism. For the upcoming academic year, she will be Visiting Scholar at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, CA.

1.  https://vault.fbi.gov/cointel-pro

2.  Intercept, April 9, 2016

3. https://www.aclu.org/problem-countering-violent-extremism-programs

4. https://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/cve-programs-resource-page

About the Author

J. Wesley Boyd, M.D., Ph.D.

Wes Boyd, Ph.D., is on faculty at Harvard Medical School and is an attending psychiatrist at Cambridge Health Alliance and Children’s Hospital Boston.

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