Key Dem wants watchdog to probe little-known FBI program

Key Dem wants watchdog to probe little-known FBI program
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The top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee is asking a federal privacy watchdog to look into mysterious FBI committees designed to prevent people from turning into radical extremists.

The groups — which are meant to be a voluntary collaborations between law enforcement and community leaders — appear to exist without clear limitations and could violate people’s privacy, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) worries. 

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“Little information is known about the protections, if any, allotted for the voluntary intervention leaders,” Thompson told the head of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in a letter on Friday.

“Referrals to the committee do not end or preclude FBI from conducting concurrent criminal investigations,” he added. “Moreover, intervention leaders are not protected from becoming a part of ongoing investigations and future criminal and judicial proceedings.”

Thompson asked David Medine, the head of the privacy watchdog, to investigate whether the committees are conducted within the bounds of the law and if any privacy or civil liberties are violated. 

Little is known about how the “Shared Responsibility Committees” operate, but they have raised alarm among some rights groups for what critics believe is unfair targeting of Muslims. The committees are designed to bring together law enforcement officers, religious leaders, mental health experts and others to pinpoint vulnerable people before they turn violent.

Last year, Thompson expressed concern about the committees to the Justice Department, shortly after a similar but unrelated website, called “Don’t Be a Puppet,” ruffled some feathers. 

In response, Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik told him that the committees “would not be tasked with identifying youth prone to violent extremism.”

As of last month, the committees were still in a pilot stage, Kadzik added.

The Shared Responsibility Committees operate under the umbrella of broader Justice Department efforts at preventing people from becoming radicals, known as Countering Violent Extremism. Civil liberties advocates have questioned the proliferation of the approach and worried that it might evolve into expansive domestic spying.

Medine unexpectedly announced last month that he would leave office later this year, likely leaving a gaping hole at the top of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.