WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security plans to ramp up social media tracking as part of an enhanced focus on violent domestic extremism. While the move is a response to weaknesses exposed by the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol, it’s raising concerns about undermining Americans’ civil liberties.
President Biden’s top appointees have called white supremacists the greatest security threat to the country and are pushing for bolstered intelligence gathering. Closely watching are advocates for communities of color and groups that have previously been the focus of intensified surveillance, sometimes unlawfully.
The DHS in recent weeks has announced a new office in its intelligence branch, focusing on domestic extremism, and a new center to facilitate “local prevention frameworks” that, according to a statement, can better identify people “who may be radicalizing, or have radicalized, to violence.”
The overall effort is in its early stages. The department is exploring partnerships with tech companies, universities, and nonprofit groups to access publicly available data. It will also train analysts on tracking social media and how to distinguish a threat from the exercise of free speech.
DHS officials say the goal is to better monitor and respond to story lines percolating on social media that could incite violence. With a more focused effort, the department could better assess domestic threats and move to protect potential targets of attacks, the officials said.
“It’s really important that people understand that in this administration, we do not view the mission of Homeland Security to police thought,” said John Cohen, the department’s assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention. “It’s about protecting against acts of violence.”
Cohen noted that the agency understands its success could be undermined “if what we are doing is viewed as constitutionally incorrect.”
Civil rights advocates are closely following the plan. Abed Ayoub, legal director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said he had spoken to Biden administration officials before and since they’ve taken office about their efforts to combat white extremism.
“These programs almost always end up targeting Black and brown communities,” Ayoub said. He added: “It does seem that the focus . . . will be on white supremacy.”
Republicans have also raised concerns about cracks in the traditional firewall between domestic and foreign intelligence.
Homeland Security and the FBI have domestic missions, while the CIA is largely prohibited from spying on US citizens. But all intelligence agencies, including Homeland Security’s intelligence arm, report to the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, whose office compiled a threat assessment published earlier this year highlighting white extremism.
US Representative Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican, said he’s concerned about information gathered by the CIA being used indirectly by agencies like the DHS and FBI. He also questioned the plans to contract with private companies for social media data.
“I understand there are concerns regarding domestic terrorism,” Stewart said. “I support those efforts so long as [they] do not breach the wall between using intelligence assets that are supposed to be focused on foreign threats.”
He added: “You can’t backdoor that by saying, ‘We won’t, but we’ll pay Google to do that for us.’ ”
Cohen, who worked for the DHS under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said the department would not tap private companies to collect intelligence that it would otherwise be barred from collecting. “We cannot hire them to do things that we can’t do under our own authorities,” he said.
The Jan. 6 attack, in which a mob seeking to stop the certification of Biden’s victory ransacked the Capitol, exposed intelligence weaknesses across law enforcement. Police on scene were left unequipped to stop the rioters, many of whom were carrying bear spray, metal pipes, and guns.
It quickly emerged that the FBI had issued a prior warning that some extremists were speculating about “war” at the Capitol. And public posts on social media showed people expressing support for trying to stop the Electoral College certification, including by using force.
DHS officials say Jan. 6 underscored that the government needed to better evaluate and act on information that may be readily available on public sites, but different from traditional forms of intelligence.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has insisted that officials from the department’s civil rights and civil liberties section be included in all discussions about the new programs, the officials said. The effort will not use artificial intelligence, nor will it track specific individuals.
In its nearly two decades of existence, Homeland Security has been repeatedly accused of violating civil liberties protections in trying to monitor threats.
Hugh Handeyside, a national security lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he was concerned the expansion of surveillance programs would renew questions about protecting free speech and privacy rights.
“Responding to security failures by giving law enforcement and intelligence agencies unneeded power and resources amounts to a one-way ratchet,” he said in an e-mail. ’'The reality is that the federal government already has more than sufficient authority to investigate and prosecute white supremacist violence.”