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Group sues feds for documents on Minnesota counterterrorism program

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A New York-based advocacy group is suing two federal agencies over a controversial counterterrorism program focused on Muslim communities in several states, including Minnesota.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law said it went to court to challenge the United States Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security after exhausting other efforts to get records on the Countering Violent Extremism program, or CVE.

The Justice Department in 2014 launched CVE pilots in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Boston, calling it a way to bring religious and community leaders and law enforcement officials together to counter efforts by ISIS and other terror groups to recruit fighters in the U.S.

Some Minnesota Muslims have questioned the pilot's intent and raised concerns that it's simply a way to gather intelligence. U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andrew Luger, who leads the CVE program in Minnesota, has told his Somali community task force he would not use the program that way. 

Brennan Center officials say they began asking federal authorities more than a year ago for documents on the CVE program detailing its policies, procedures, funding and constitutional safeguards. They said they received some documents related to the Los Angeles and Boston programs, but none about Minnesota. 

The group is particularly troubled about efforts in the Twin Cities "to use CVE to monitor Somali-American children in school," said Brennan Center attorney Michael Price.

"Our concern here is that the current iteration of CVE will have some negative impacts on Muslim communities including stigmatization, reinforcing Islamophobic stereotypes, facilitating covert intelligence gathering and suppressing decent," Price said. 

Luger's office declined to comment on the lawsuit.

It's unclear if there are rules prohibiting law enforcement agencies from gathering intelligence from Muslim communities, Price said. With the lawsuit, he added, the center is trying to determine the rules governing the government's participation in the CVE program and how the program operates.

In a report to lawmakers released Monday, the Department of Public Safety outlined several strategies that it said will guide a "successful approach in Minnesota to counter radicalization and terrorist recruitment."

The agency recommended collaboration with schools and establishing programs that would identify individuals who are "on the path to violent extremism."

"These programs may identify reliable and consistent sources to make referrals such as schools, places of worship, social workers, or doctors; divert those who have begun the process of radicalization and may be on the path to violent extremism; and provide an opportunity for such individuals to transition back into mainstream society within their community," the report said.

DPS also calls on training community members to identify youth who may be at risk for recruitment.  

In St. Paul, the police department has its own CVE effort focused on Minnesota's East African community. It recently received a $100,000 grant from the State Homeland Security Program, which funds state programs focused on terrorism prevention.

Many efforts in countering violent extremism have largely relied on the idea that it's possible to identify people on the verge of becoming radicals, but there's no "typical trajectory that a person follows to become a terrorist," Price said.

"What teenager isn't a little disaffected or exhibits signs of alienation?" he added. "I think that describes most teenagers."