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Senate Measure Would Expand FBI’s Power to Target Internet Thought Crimes Under Guise of Fighting Terrorism

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence approved a measure in the 2016 intelligence authorization bill, which would require social media websites and email services to flag “terrorist activity” for the FBI and other law enforcement and security agencies.

According to the Washington Post, the measure would not “require companies to monitor their sites if they do not already do so.” It would apply to “electronic communication service providers,” and ensure they report videos or other content posted by “suspected terrorists.”

The expansion of power, which would increase the government’s power to undermine freedom of expression, is supposedly not supported by “industry officials” from companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

From the Post:

…“Asking Internet companies to proactively monitor people’s posts and messages would be the same thing as asking your telephone company to monitor and log all your phone calls, text messages, all your Internet browsing, all the sites you visit,” said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the provision is not yet public. “Considering the vast majority of people on these sites are not doing anything wrong, this type of monitoring would be considered by many to be an invasion of privacy. It would also be technically difficult.”…

Government officials may claim it is necessary for the fight against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. However, what the measure would do is increase the capability of the United States security state to engage in preemptive prosecution—to target and prosecute individuals or organizations who have beliefs, ideology, or a religious affiliations which make them a person of interest for the government.

For example, consider the case of Tarek Mehanna, who is currently serving a seventeen and a half-year prison sentence after he was convicted of material support for terrorism in December 2012.

Mehanna was “born in the United States to Egyptian immigrant parents and grew up outside of Boston. He became a devout Muslim who was fiercely critical of US foreign policy, especially in Muslim countries,” Amna Akbar wrote for The Nation. “He believed deeply in the right of Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries to defend against foreign occupation. And he talked about it. He subtitled “jihadi” videos; he translated an archaic oft-translated Arabic text 39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad [by Anwar Al-Awlaki]; and he engaged in religious and political debate online through instant messages, emails and web postings.”

Mehanna took a trip to Yemen in 2004 for “religious and language instruction.” The government has conceded there were no terrorism training camps in Yemen. Still, the government maintained he traveled to Yemen to train with a terrorist group.

The FBI began to spy on him in 2005 and attempted to turn him into an informant. When Mehanna refused, the FBI pledged to make his life difficult. Mehanna continued to translate texts, including various works about jihad by Afghan and Iraqi scholars. He posted them to his website, along with poetry and other writings. Mehanna was arrested in 2008 and charged with “conspiracy to give material support to terrorism by translating radical Arabic writings into English and posting them on his website,” according to the Project for the Support and Legal Advocacy of Muslims (Project SALAM).

Mehanna never acted under the direction of Al Qaeda yet the government insisted in court that his work had been intended to “inspire others to engage in violent jihad.” In fact, as Akbar noted, at no point did the government present evidence that Mehanna had provided support to any designated terrorist organization. There was no evidence that his translations caused harm. There was no evidence that his translation had incited “imminent criminal conduct.” What he was convicted of committing was inspiring others to “support opinions the United States government finds objectionable,” particularly opinions related to radical Islamic thought.

In 2013, Mehanna’s appeal was denied, which further solidified the power government prosecutors have to target people for speech and expression deemed dangerous. He is serving his sentence in a “communications management unit” in a prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, which means he is living in conditions of solitary confinement and confined to a cell 23 hours a day.

Mehanna’s postings would undoubtedly fall in the category of activity the FBI and other security agencies would want internet companies to flag, even though there was no explicit intent to incite any violence whatsoever.

Another case that is relevant to the measure to flag “terrorist activity” is the case of Javed Iqbal. According to Project SALAM, Iqbal was “an entrepreneur who operated a small satellite broadcasting company from a storefront in Brooklyn, New York and his garage in Staten Island. The programs included broadcasts by Christian evangelicals.” Yet, in 2006, the government charged Iqbal with “providing service to Al Manar, a station supposedly controlled by Hezbollah.

The New York Civil Liberties Union came to Iqbal’s defense and argued he was “being punished for publicizing the news and that he was entitled to the First Amendment protections given to journalists.” Still, Iqbal was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison.

One could imagine someone like Iqbal operating a YouTube channel with programming similar to what Iqbal aired. The content would be material the FBI and other security agencies would want flagged for their operations.

The flagging of “terrorist activity” in a more aggressive manner would expand the number of targets the FBI had for potential informants. The agency needs examples of speech from individuals it can then use to confront and pressure them into working for them. And many of the terrorism sting operations launched against vulnerable individuals, who likely would never commit any violence unless coerced and manipulated by government agents, start with a posting to Twitter, Facebook, or an online message board.

In January, Christopher Lee Cornell was arrested in a terrorism sting and accused of plotting an attack on the US Capitol. He was charged with attempting to kill a government official, “possession of a firearm in furtherance of an attempted crime of violence,” and “solicitation to commit a crime of violence.”

Cornell became a target after an informant notified the FBI that Cornell had “posted comments and information supportive” of the Islamic State “through Twitter accounts.” He then contacted Cornell over Twitter in August 2014 and communicated with him over an “instant messaging platform separate from Twitter.”

The twenty year-old was suffering from mental illness and dealing with family troubles. His father said Cornell did not have money for weapons. He was a “mommy’s boy.” Plus, the informant needed to bring the FBI a “terrorist” to “obtain favorable treatment with respect to his criminal exposure on an unrelated case.”

Additionally, the flagging of “terrorist activity” would increase the pernicious tactics used by the government against Muslim immigrants.

Youssef Megahed was a twenty-one year-old legal US resident from Egypt, according to a report [PDF] by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ). He was a student at the University of South Florida. Police arrested him, along with his friend Ahmed Mohamed, in August 2007, and the government alleged he had explosives for “terrorist activity” after police stopped him for speeding and found model rockets in his car. The two were indicted on charges. Mohamed took a plea deal. Megahed went to trial. The jury believed Megahed that he did not know the materials were in his car, and he was acquitted. Just three days later, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Megahed and pushed to deport him.

ICE’s case included not only the facts used against him at his trial but materials on a family computer, which ICE claimed contained “numerous videos, documents, and an internet search history that supports Islamic extremism, jihad against the United States.” The government imprisoned Megahed at the Glades County Detention Center for nearly four months until an immigration judge dismissed the case against him. But ICE required him to still report monthly to ICE in Tampa. He effectively was kept on house arrest or detention for two years before the persecution ended.

Yet another example is the case of Ismoil Samadov, an Uzbek citizen, who was detained by ICE in 2004 on an extradition warrant from the Uzbek warrant. It was recognized that Samadov was at risk of torture and religious persecution if returned to Uzbekistan, however, Samadov was denied asylum because he had housemates, who allegedly viewed videos deemed dangerous and received an email with the word “jihad” in the message.

What is remarkable about Samadov’s case is that there was no evidence of “terrorism activity” against him. He was perceived as a threat because he had associates, who the government suspected of being dangerous. So, if Google, Facebook, or Twitter flagged content from an individual, would people in their social circle automatically become susceptible to targeting as well?

Through this measure to require the flagging of content, security agencies seek greater power to punish individuals for thought crimes. It will disproportionately impact Muslim immigrants and American Muslims in the United States. White supremacists or right-wing extremists will not have to fear government intrusion into their lives as they potentially use violent rhetoric to express their racism. The government obsesses over “jihadists,” with the Department of Homeland Security only having a “total of three people analyzing non-Islamic domestic extremism.”

As of this writing, the bill has not been filed. How “terrorist activity” might be defined is unknown, but in 2007, Representative Jane Harman pushed legislation called the “Violent Radicalizaton and Homegrown Terrorism Act,” which very broadly defined “violent radicalization” as the promotion of an “extremist belief system.” It defined “homegrown terrorism” as any “planned” or “threatened” use of force to coerce the government or the people in the promotion of any “political or social objectives.”

These definitions still reflect the current culture within the US global security state today. In the US war against the Islamic State, the government contends it is losing the propaganda battle. It must clamp down on individuals that are engaged in freedom of expression, which may help facilitate the spread of the Islamic State’s ideology. That includes anti-imperialist ideology cloaked in radical Islamic thought, even if there are no calls to commit violence. And the FBI and other security agencies are hungry for this additional power to escalate their operations against “homegrown extremists.”

Image is a Creative Commons-Licensed Photo from the Brookings Institution of FBI Director James Comey

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."