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U.S. Pressed on Countering Violent Extremists

MANHATTAN (CN) - Government agencies have stonewalled attempts to learn about the Obama administration's programs fighting violent extremists, a law and policy institute claims in a federal complaint.

Designed to help Muslim communities and law-enforcement agencies identify people vulnerable to radicalization, Obama launched Countering Violent Extremism initiatives in 2014, as part of his 2011 National Strategy for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism.

Some critics say the programs unfairly single out Muslims, however, prompting the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University to seek information on the interagency effort.

Noting that it has done extensive work on some of the perceived flaws with the CVE program, the Brennan Center says it wants to publish analysis and commentary about the program, in particular examining its policies, procedures and constitutional safeguards.

The outfit went to court Friday to compel action from the Justice Department and Homeland Security on its requests.

"There is an urgency to inform the public about the government's CVE initiative, a subject of national importance and debate in the wake of reports concerning the threat of 'homegrown' terrorism," the 32-page complaint says.

The Brennan Center has emphasized that it is not trying to learn operational details.

Michael Price, the Brennan Center attorney behind the lawsuit, emphasized that theories of terrorist radicalization should not support the CVE initiative since such programs have been proven to cause unnecessary fear, discrimination and unjustified reports to law enforcement.

"As we've seen in the past, some of these programs have really alienated Muslim communities and created a stigma that is not only unwarranted and improper, but harmful to national security," Price said in an interview.

Though previous iterations of CVE programs run by the FBI and New York City Police Department overly focused on common Muslim religious behavior as indicators of radicalization, the Brennan Center's own research - in addition to research from the U.S. government and the United Kingdom - shows there is no typical trajectory to becoming a terrorist, Price added.

"That basic idea that there is some conveyor belt toward radicalization still seems to permeate all of the CVE programming that we've seen in recent years," Price said. "Our hope here is to figure out what this current round of CVE is based on, and to see if it's based on similarly flawed theories of radicalization or empirical studies that have been debunked."

Representatives for Homeland Security and the Justice Department declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The Brennan Center filed the FOIA requests to ensure "that domestic surveillance and counterterrorism policies are properly targeted to the threat and do not discriminate against particular communities," according to the complaint.

Sent in December 2014 and January 2015, the Brennan Center's first batch of requests sought for records related to pilot CVE programs launched in Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.

Numerous follow-up attempts with Homeland Security allegedly met with unreturned voicemails and unfulfilled promises.

In one case the agency "stated that a search had produced a number of responsive records, some of which are 'under the purview of another government agency,' and promised a further response 'upon receipt' of a 'release recommendation' from that unnamed agency."

The center says it also sought records related to grant applications by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for CVE programs. More than a year later and after numerous follow-ups, the agency said it processed the request, but had placed it in a queue for further review.

Efforts to get information from the FBI about local and international CVE efforts have proved similarly difficult.

With the FBI releasing 28 pages of redacted documents, and withholding one page altogether, the center "appealed the adequacy of the search and challenged all of the redactions."

Against the FBI's a wall of silence about its appeal, the center says a separate request it submitted to the bureau on Jan. 23, 2015, has "been listed as 'processing' for over ten months."

That request involves community-outreach records and related policy directives.

The center submitted another request this past November for records related to the FBI's "Don't be a Puppet" program and other "shared responsibility committees."

Claiming that it could not find records related to the latter program, the FBI informed the Brennan Center last month "that a determination should not be expected for another 465 days," concerning the "Don't be a Puppet" program.

The center also requested records from the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys related to CVE initiatives announced by former Attorney General Eric Holder. That agency has released 16 pages, and withheld four complete pages.

An appeal of this request has gone nowhere, the Brennan Center says.

Price said he does not believe any valid FOIA exemptions exist that would prevent the Brennan Center from obtaining the requested information.

"We're asking for information about policies and procedures, not operational details," Brennan Center attorney Price said over the phone. "This is pretty basic stuff that we're asking for, and I'm hopeful that we'll get it."

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