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DHS weighs outside contracts to monitor extremists online: CNN

DHS weighs outside contracts to monitor extremists online: CNN
© Greg Nash

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is weighing contracting with outside firms to monitor extremist chatter online as a way to sidestep limits on government surveillance, CNN reported Monday.

While intelligence agencies can monitor anything extremists groups post publicly, they are barred from assuming false identities to join restricted messaging groups.

Partnering with research firms and nonprofits that don’t face those same limitations could give DHS and others such as the FBI greater insight into groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. 

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DHS denied it is weighing turning to outside groups in a statement to The Hill Monday afternoon.

“This is false. DHS is not partnering with private firms to surveil suspected domestic terrorists online," the department said.

"It is also blatantly false to suggest that the Department is using outside firms to circumvent its legal limits. All of our work to address the threat of domestic terrorism is done consistent with the Constitution and other applicable law, and in close coordination with our privacy and civil liberties experts.”

Such a plan would likely raise concerns about government surveillance of U.S. citizens, which typically requires a warrant and an ongoing investigation.

"There's a tension between wanting to empower [DHS's intelligence office] to do this kind of work around domestic terrorism on the one hand and then on the other hand the misuse of its capabilities during the summer of 2020,” a Senate aide told CNN, referencing the riots in Portland, Ore.

The Washington Post previously reported that DHS compiled “intelligence reports” on journalists who were covering the protests there. 

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The reported internal discussion at DHS about such partnerships comes as the department is under heavy scrutiny for its work in the days leading up to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

In a bulletin posted shortly after Inauguration Day, the department warned of heightened threats from extremist groups.

“DHS is concerned these same drivers to violence will remain through early 2021 and some DVEs may be emboldened by the January 6, 2021 breach of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. to target elected officials and government facilities,” the agency wrote in a bulletin, using shorthand for domestic violent extremists.

—Updated at 4:50 p.m.