In advance of this week's Homeland Security hearings on domestic radicalization, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDounough sought to reassure the American Muslim community that the government views its members as partners, not enemies.
"We have a choice. We can choose to send a message to certain Americans that they are somehow 'less American' because of their faith or how they look; that we see their entire community as a potential threat," McDonough said. "Or we can make another choice. We can send the message that we're all Americans."
The administration's inclusive rhetoric and the incendiary contrast offered by Rep. Peter King and other Republicans have drawn attention away from what's happening in the real world. The Obama administration's strategy has been inclusiveness in rhetoric and zealousness in execution. Even as McDonough assured Muslims that "when it comes to preventing violent extremism and terrorism in the United States, Muslim Americans are not part of the problem; you're part of the solution," the administrations policies have sometimes left American Muslims with the opposite impression. The King hearings are built on a number of false premises -- the extent of radicalization in the Muslim community and Muslims' supposed lack of cooperation with law enforcement. But the biggest misconception is the idea that the government isn't already singling out American Muslims for close scrutiny.
The Obama administration kept the Bush-era FBI investigative guidelines, which are more lax on matters of racial and ethnic profiling. The rules allow FBI agents to initiate surveillance without suspicion of criminality, allow domestic intelligence gathering in religious spaces, and even allow agents to gather information on "concentrated ethnic communities." A report by the Brennan Center titled "Rethinking Radicalization" suggests the guidelines have encouraged law enforcement to monitor entire communities rather than suspicious individuals.
"When you have such broad discretion, you increase the likelihood of ethnic or religious profiling," says Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center's Liberty and National Security Program and author of the report. "This tends to alienate the very communities whose support and information we need to fight real terrorist threats."
The government's aggressive approach to domestic counterterrorism -- particularly its use of informants -- has caused some friction within the American Muslim community. Last month, the California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the government over an FBI informant who says he was told to infiltrate local mosques. When the informant tried to organize a fake terrorist attack, local Muslims reported the FBI's own informant back to them. "When it comes to American Muslims, the standards of oversight get lowered," says Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR in California.
That friction should not be mistaken for a lack of cooperation. While Rep. King has alleged that American Muslims "won't come forward and cooperate with police," a study by the Triangle Center on Terrorism at Duke University says that 40 percent of domestic terror plots have been foiled with the aid of the Muslim community.
Contrary to King's view that most American mosques are radicalized, the extremist message has fallen particularly flat among American Muslims, much to the chagrin of American-born radicals like Anwar al-Awlaki, whose Internet tirades are peppered with complaints about American Muslims being too moderate. Brian Michael Jenkins, a counterterrorism expert with the RAND corporation, told Adam Rawnsley of Wired that the actual number of Muslim Americans who have been involved in terror attacks is "between 0.007 to 0.006 percent" of the population.
But while King's hearings may be built on some woefully false premises, that doesn't mean that holding hearings on domestic radicalization is inherently illegitimate. "The simple focus on one kind of extremism -- Islamic extremism but not, say, the radical right -- does not automatically entail stigmatization," says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Center for the Defense of Democracies. "Should hearings in the past that focused on the Italian mafia have included Russian organized crime as well? That would have led to rather unfocused hearings."
That doesn't mean the outcry from the Muslim community over the hearings -- and the person holding them -- is somehow surprising. "Many conservatives would absolutely have a fit if there were such hearings on right-wing extremism, just as they had a rather unjustifiable fit following DHS' controversial intelligence assessment on right-wing extremism," Gartenstein-Ross says. "The fact that conservatives felt so personally slighted by that report shows why they should be at least sympathetic to Muslims' real concerns in this instance."
McDonough's speech reflected the knowledge that the administration is already walking a tightrope between its counterterrorism efforts and preserving a vital relationship with the Muslim community. If the King hearings turn into a witch hunt, they'll undermine the very cooperation he claims he wants to see. When you're looking for a needle in a haystack, the last thing you want to lose is a good pair of eyes.