Photo: Shannon Erwin, an attorney who serves on the Board of the ACLU of Massachusetts and the Muslim Justice League, and former FBI agent Michael German discuss the civil liberties concerns of the 'Countering Violent Extremism' program at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.

In 2014, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Justice (DOJ) named Boston as a site for a pilot program known as "Countering Violent Extremism" or "CVE." The ACLU of Massachusetts has raised serious concerns about the civil rights, civil liberties, and public safety implications of adopting this unproven and seemingly discriminatory approach to law enforcement.

Take action against CVE

Tell EOHHS that bigoted CVE programs are not welcome in Massachusetts.

What is CVE?

CVE is a law enforcement model that originated in the United Kingdom, premised on the discredited idea that harboring certain political or religious views is an indicator of future violence. Historically, CVE efforts have targeted specific communities, seeking people who might display so-called "vulnerabilities" to ideological or political "radicalization." In contrast to proven counter-terrorism strategies that focus on violent threats or behaviors, the CVE model asks parents, teachers, religious leaders, health and social service professionals, and law enforcement personnel to track and report to the government people engaged in protected First Amendment political speech and thoughts in ways that violate civil liberties without making our communities safer.

How does CVE undermine public safety and civil liberties?

In addition to threatening constitutional rights, the CVE focus on monitoring people's speech and thoughts fails to prevent terrorism and may even endanger public safety. There is no demonstrated causal relationship between political rhetoric and violence, but CVE-style efforts identify controversial speech as a possible indicator of trouble. Moreover, CVE programs appear not to treat all controversial speech equally, too often targeting people based on race, religion, or ethnicity. This discriminatory tendency means CVE may undermine public safety by exacerbating tensions between communities and the police. Most often, CVE targets Muslim communities, despite the fact that the vast majority of terror attacks in the United States have been committed by non-Muslims.

Law enforcement abuses related to direct mass surveillance of Muslims have already weakened community trust in law enforcement. Additional discriminatory targeting of people through CVE based solely on their speech, beliefs, or religion will foster even greater fear of law enforcement, undermining the mutual trust needed to ensure effective community policing and public safety.
Unwarranted focus on specific religious and ethnic communities also tends to deflect attention from law enforcement failures by shifting blame for violence onto one religious community, making it more likely that government will overlook other dangers and less likely that government will learn from its mistakes and reform faulty intelligence practices.

These problems with CVE are not hypothetical predictions. The U.K. model for CVE efforts, called the "Preventing Violent Extremism" ("Prevent") program, led to repeated instances of innocent people ensnared, monitored, and stigmatized. Among them were a college student falsely reported to authorities as a potential "extremist" simply for attending a meeting about Gaza, and a nine-year-old boy referred to authorities for "deprogramming" purposes.

CVE and similar programs thereby also threaten rights of association, such as when a Muslim student organization was pressured to hand over membership lists to the government. In another example, a mental health project's funding became implicitly conditioned upon relaying the personal information of ordinary people to authorities.

In short, CVE threatens civil rights and civil liberties, without making us safe.

ACLU action against CVE

In April 2014, the Obama administration's Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor Lisa Monaco came to Harvard University to announce the dispatch of a DHS CVE "local envoy" to Boston. Shortly thereafter, the ACLU of Massachusetts signed onto a coalition letter written by the Brennan Center for Justice expressing our concerns to DHS.

In September 2014, the DOJ announced its own CVE pilots would be launched in Boston, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. Massachusetts's U.S. Attorney's Office ("USAO") began developing a "framework" for the Boston CVE pilot—in closed meetings with individuals selected by the USAO. The ACLU of Massachusetts, in collaboration with the Brennan Center for Justice, subsequently hosted two forums—at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center and Harvard Law School—in an effort to promote genuine public discourse about the CVE program's potential impacts on Greater Boston, and to inform people of their rights when talking to federal law enforcement agents.

On February 18, 2015, the White House convened an "International Summit on Countering Violent Extremism." In advance of the summit, the ACLU of Massachusetts and other organizations signed onto a Boston coalition letter written by the Muslim Justice League, reiterating our concerns about CVE to the White House, DOJ, and DHS.

On September 21, 2015, several human rights, community-based and civil liberties organizations including the National ACLU sent a letter to New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio to express concern about the CVE program.

On September 28, 2015, the United States Department of Justice announced the launch of the similar Strong Cities program at the United Nations. The Strong Cities program includes 25 cities throughout the world, including four in the United States: Atlanta, Denver, Minneapolis and New York.

In April 2016, the national ACLU, along with several civil rights and civil liberties organizations, requested that the FBI shut down the "Don't Be a Puppet" website over concerns that it perpetuates negative stereotypes of Arabs, Sikhs, South Asians, Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim.

Resources on CVE

Fact Sheet: Beware of the Mass. Executive Office of Health and Human Services' "PEACE Project" grant
Preventing Education? Human Rights and UK Counter-terrorism Policy in Schools by Rights Watch UK
Countering Violent Extremism: Myths and Fact by the Brennan Center for Justice
Factsheet about CVE, prepared by the Muslim Justice League

  • CVE programs threaten basic constitutional rights, such as religious liberty, freedom of speech and right to association.

Is Your Child's Bad Attitude a Predictor of Terrorism? A New Federal Pilot Program in Boston Wants to Know by Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, and Shannon Erwin, an attorney who serves on the board of the ACLU of Massachusetts and the Muslim Justice League

  • By extending the surveillance state into targeted communities, CVE threatens to drive people away from needed social services by co-opting trusted professionals in the health, education, and non-profit sectors and leading them to violate the privacy of the people they serve.

Flawed Theories on Violent Extremism Lead to Bad Policy by Michael German

  • The premises underlying CVE— both regarding causes of violence and outward signs of "radicalization"— are unsupported by sound research.

Radicalisation: The journey of a concept by Arun Kundnani

  • Understanding why CVE is problematic requires understanding the history of the flawed law enforcement concept of "radicalization," which unduly focuses on Muslims and Muslim communities as suspect.

Islamic leader says US officials unfairly target Muslims by Bryan Bender

  • In selectively advancing the importance of taking communal responsibility for political violence, CVE unfairly targets Muslims and other ethnic and religious minority groups.

Radically wrong: A counterproductive approach to counterterrorism

  • ACLU blogs about how counterterrorism policies can lead to surveillance, discrimination and selective law enforcement.

Know Your Rights: What to do if the FBI or police contact you for questioning
Know Your Rights when contacted by law enforcement or returning into the US
Video: Protect yourself from FBI manipulation


Alternet: How the Federal ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ Program Weaponizes Anti-Bullying Rhetoric
ACLU: What Could Go Wrong With Asking Teachers To Monitor Kids for ‘Extremist’ Beliefs?
Alice LoCicero, PhD and J. Wesley Boyd, MD, PhD: The Dangers of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Programs
The Intercept: Letter Details FBI Plan for Secretive Anti-Radicalization Committees
Truth-Out: The FBI Has a New Plan to Spy on High School Students Across the Country
Fair Observer: FBI Uses Teachers as "Soft Surveillance"
Bay State Banner: Rights groups take aim at anti-terror program
Al Jazeera: UK teachers see thin line between spy and protector
Boston Herald: Counter-terror effort not for Boston
The Boston Globe: Boston to host anti-extremist pilot program
Boston Herald: Pilot program looks to be proactive in halting terror
ACLU letter to the White House about domestic counterterrorism policies
ACLU: Misstated Threats - Terrorism isn’t an American-Muslim Problem