Portman Questions Witnesses on Role of Federal Government in Preventing & Addressing Domestic Terrorism & Violent Extremism

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, during the second hearing this week to examine the persistent and concerning threat posed by domestic terrorists and violent extremists, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, questioned experts on what role the federal government could and should be playing in working to prevent and address this threat. As Ranking Member on the Committee charged with oversight of the Department of Homeland Security, Senator Portman reiterated his commitment to working with federal, state, and local officials to prevent persistent and concerning threats posed by malicious actors. 

In addition, Senator Portman urged the development of relationships between local law enforcement and communities so that they can work together effectively at the local level to combat acts of terrorism and violent extremism before they occur.   

Excerpts of the questioning can be found below and a video can be found here. 


Portman: “Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate all the testimony today. Ms. Berry, I understand your view on laws that can be misused. The one thing I just want to be sure that we are connecting the dots on here. This is the Committee that is supposed to have oversight over Homeland Security, the Department of Homeland Security. And we had a lot of discussion today from Ms. Neumann about what was called the Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention that she was with previously. And now it’s called the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships. In your written testimony, you talked about the fact that you thought that was an ineffective and even discriminatory office. You did not talk about that today, and you guys have not had a dialogue on that, maybe on purpose. But again, our job, as I said earlier, if we can get more to solutions in this round of testimony, that would be great. Can you guys have a discussion about that? What’s wrong with having an office or a center that focuses on that? And, Ms. Neumann, you were there, so I’ll let you respond to Ms. Berry. But Ms. Berry, if you could just give me your views on that, what are your current views on that office or the center?” 

Maya Berry, Executive Director at the Arab American Institute: “Thank you, Ranking Member Portman, for the question. The comments in my statement refer to programs primarily under the Obama administration and into some of the time under the Trump administration, known as Countering Violent Extremism Programs. We take a very cautious approach, shall I say, to approaching prevention programs, because what we’ve seen in practice to be primarily ineffective approaches. I didn’t take the position of directly opposing in my statement the CP3 programming or the new TVTP. And I’ll tell you that, Senator, that’s because it’s early in the process. We have had two briefings. They’ve talked a great deal about the new Colorado model. I’m interested in hearing more about it, but what we have found historically is there’s two reasons for us to be concerned. The first is the efficacy of these programs. Frankly, as an American taxpayer as someone who has concerns about how we spend our tax dollars, where those efforts are. And in times when there’s a great deal or need to appropriately fund good programs, I worry about radicalization theories and the ideas that we can step in and prevent this type of violence. I leave that to the experts, but I do think that there’s a lot of have healthy skepticism about what’s possible. 

“The second part of the concern that relates directly to the CVE programming previously, and as I said, we’ll cautiously ask for congressional oversight over these programs and look at them is that they were highly discriminatory in targeting specific communities. We were led to believe that a young American Muslim teenager who was probably going through some issues, needed to be, for example, referred to their school counselor on a different track and different oversight. We had the FBI create a website called Don’t Be a Puppet. That was really problematic for many reasons. There’s a lot of the CVE programming that was highly, I think, irregular and discriminatory, and it didn’t stop with targeting the American Muslim community. We went from countering violent extremism to this concept known as BIE, the Black Identity Extremism, which is a completely fabricated issue. So we have real concerns about what prevention programs have looked like and are willing to see where they’re going. But the reality is there needs to be a great deal of oversight.” 

Portman: “So your response is we need to have that, in fact, for doing it in an expedited way because there are so many issues to get into here. It sounds like you’re saying we should not reauthorize the CP3 program without adequate oversight. But are you saying that we shouldn’t authorize it at all, just yes or no?” 

Ms. Berry: “At this time, I would say no.” 

Portman: Okay. Ms. Neumann, what is your response to that?” 

Elizabeth Neumann, Former Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention: “Again, I probably agree with more than people might think of what Ms. Berry said. The early iterations of CVE, there were multiple instances where, in my view, it was abused, that it was at times, and I don’t know that those that set it up intended it to be this way, but at times, in certain locations in the country, it basically became a tips and leads program for the FBI. And if you know anything about radicalization processes and how you might move somebody to build resilience so that they’re not vulnerable to radicalization or you’re trying to move somebody off of a radicalization pathway, inserting law enforcement into that dialogue usually doesn’t help. It closes off. And we saw this right? The communities, the very communities that we needed to be partnering with did not trust the FBI because of other factors that had nothing to do with CVE. You add CVE to the mix, and it just didn’t work in multiple locations. 

“There were other places where they piloted efforts not necessarily coming from the federal government. And over time, they figured out what worked. And when I came back into government in 2017, it was the thing that everybody loved to hate. Republicans thought that it was based on pseudoscience and that it didn’t work. And Democrats thought it was a tool to target the Muslim community. And we were kind of left, you know when you’re new in a job, trying to figure out what’s the ground truth here. We had some extra money, so we punted. We asked RAND our FFRDC to study it for us. They produced a 300 page report. They talked to experts all around the world and other countries who have been doing prevention, sorry, sir. 

“The bottom line is, I think what we have produced now learned from the mistakes that we made and is based on evidence that it does work. That said, I have been very clear. And when I briefed you guys two years ago, we’re trying something new. We’re innovating because what we have tried for 20 years hasn’t worked. So we’re going to make mistakes. We need to be transparent about those mistakes. We need civil libertarians at the table helping us do this. Two main differences from the past. It is not law enforcement led, and it’s locally based. It’s not driven out of Washington.” 

Portman: “Okay. Well, thank you. And I know this is a complicated area, and I don’t mean to rush the discussion, but I’m getting close to end of my time. You quoted Ben Franklin earlier, afterwards, Mr. Levin quoted Abraham Lincoln, but Franklin’s admonition is correct. I hope everybody agrees with that. That prevention is the best approach, if it would work. In other words, trying to avoid these hateful acts, avoid what’s happening online, as we talked about earlier through prevention. And what you’re saying is, it’s the social science around that has been difficult. And you say the RAND study validates the fact that this prevention effort was somewhat successful, but it could be more successful if you use different kinds of tools, including different kinds of leadership and different roles for law enforcement. But I think prevention is absolutely critical. And we have to figure this out. 

“And again, this is a Committee that’s supposed to be providing the oversight over not just that program, but the entire department’s effort in this realm, and we have the lead on it, the Department of Homeland Security. So I really want to work with the people on this panel today and with the Chairman and others to be sure that we have an effective prevention program. We’ve talked about the international terrorism issue more than we had the domestic terrorism issue relative to prevention. But obviously both are incredibly important. And I think to Ms. Berry’s point, it can be money very well spent if it’s spent effectively. And by the way, to the law enforcement point, and again, I want to hear Mr. Levin later, I guess you have to get it for the record now, because I’m over my time. Give me your data on law enforcement and government officials generally being subject to these attacks, because the data we have from Tuesday is that the single highest number of attacks are actually on government officials and law enforcement. So it’s a broad issue. 

“And I’ll just end with one final point in the Somali community in Columbus, Ohio, law enforcement developed a good relationship and particularly one officer, and they were able, as a result, to prevent an attack from happening. I mean, literally, someone had the steps in place to initiate a terrible attack that would have killed a number of people. And because of a tip, and because of working with the Somali community, the community stepped forward. Obviously, the leaders in the community were adamant about not having this kind of activity, certainly terrorist activity in their midst. And so they worked with law enforcement to provide the information. It’s one of the few examples we can point to in America where we actually know that law enforcement worked with a community, the community responded, and we were able to avert a terrible attack. So I do think law enforcement can play a very effective role at the local level in an appropriate way in this case, by developing those relationships. And I think that may be one of the single most important, effective things that we can do. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”