Nonprofit Says DHS Botched Handling of Simple FOIA Request

WASHINGTON (CN) – A conservative nonprofit claims in federal court that the  Department of Homeland Security has refused to disclose the criteria it uses to award grants as part of its Countering Violent Extremism program.

The Middle East Forum alleges that it instructed the DHS where to find the records in its Jan. 10 Freedom of Information Act request, but the agency — without explanation — rerouted this information to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and subsequently closed the request file.

“On information and belief, DHS never conducted a search for records in the locations plaintiffs identified as likely to hold responsive records,” the 10-page lawsuit states.

According to the April 26 complaint, the nonprofit had instructed the DHS to search for the records with the deputy director in the Office for Community Partnerships.

The Middle East Forum wants to know who the agency awarded and denied grants to, and why.

It says it is concerned that American Islamist organizations with a “fringe history” of encouraging communities not to cooperate with law enforcement and federal authorities have received CVE grants.

“We wanted to see the applications, score sheets and comments of how these grants were awarded,” director Gregg Roman said in a phone interview.

“We think there’s something fishy going on there,” Roman added. “Why would you fund extremists to help counter violent extremism?”

Roman said groups that have expressed support for Hezbollah, a Lebanese political and military group the U.S. has designated as a terror organization, have received CVE grants in the past.

He called the funding of such groups a “waste of taxpayer dollars” and “antithetical” to the CVE program.

The DHS declined to comment on the pending litigation, but according to its website, FEMA partners with the Office for Community Partnership to monitor the Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE programs.

The DHS says the CVE initiative, founded in 2014, attempts to address root causes of extremism and radicalization with grants that community, religious and education leaders can use to partner with local law enforcement to discourage U.S. residents from joining extremist groups.

The agency awards grants to non-profits, non-governmental organizations, institutions of higher education and state, local and tribal governments to carry out the programs.

Under the Obama administration, the program focuses on combating radicalization by right-wing and white supremacy groups, as well as jihadist groups.

However, the program has drawn sharp criticism from those who say it focuses most of its efforts on Muslims, and as a result, stigmatizes the entire community as suspect.

The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School says the CVE initiative promotes flawed theories about terrorist radicalization and consequently leads to unnecessary fear and discrimination against Muslims, in addition to unjustified reports to law enforcement.

At the outset of the Trump administration, Reuters reported that the DHS might remove right-wing groups from the program. However, the DHS says it has not made any decisions about changing the program yet.

The Middle East Forum has also been critical of DHS counterterrorism efforts, but for different reasons than the Brennan Center.

A July 2016 article by A.J. Caschetta, a fellow at the nonprofit, suggested that the Obama administration’s focus on rightwing extremism was wrongheaded.

“The federal government has spent the last eight years pretending (maybe even believing) that ‘rightwing extremists’ are more numerous and dangerous than the careful and intelligent jihadist attackers, whom it insists are just ‘madmen’ or ‘troubled individuals,'” the article reads.

The “about” section of the Middle East Forum’s website describes the nonprofit’s mission as protecting Western values from Middle Eastern threats, and promoting American interests in the Middle East.

One of its stated goals is defeating “radical Islam,” a phrase the Obama administration refrained from using but one the Trump administration has embraced.

The Southern Poverty Law Center names the nonprofit’s founder, Daniel Pipes, among the top 15 “anti-Muslim extremists” driving anti-Islam propaganda efforts in the U.S.

The nonprofit is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief instructing the DHS to search for and produce all records responsive to its request.

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