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The Biden administration is considering working with outside firms to surveil “extremist” language by Americans online, anonymous sources told CNN on Monday.
A plan being discussed by Department of Homeland Security officials would allow the agency to use outside firms to access private messaging apps used by extremist domestic groups. DHS is generally limited in its ability to monitor Americans online and is banned from using false identities to infiltrate online groups, however the agency reportedly believes that contracting with outside firms could present a workaround solution.
Because the FBI cannot legally monitor Americans without a warrant, DHS partnerships with outside firms could also provide the FBI with some intelligence, according to CNN.
“We are exploring with our lawyers, civil rights, civil liberties and privacy colleagues, how we can make use of outside expertise,” a DHS official told the network.
The initiative comes as law enforcement agencies ramp up scrutiny of extremist groups with members present at the Capitol riot on January 6, including the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. President Biden said that white supremacists currently represent “most lethal terrorist threat” to the U.S. during his address to Congress last week.
However, the plan has produced skepticism among observers of DHS handling of the riots in Portland, Ore., in summer 2020. Federal agents were dispatched to assist local police in combatting anarchists in the city, which saw over 120 consecutive days of riots.
“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.
A DHS intelligence agency compiled reports on two journalists during the riots, summarizing tweets from the journalists while noting that they published leaked DHS documents, the Washington Post reported in July 2020. Then-acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf ordered the agency to stop collecting information on journalists following the Post‘s report.
“In no way does the Acting Secretary condone this practice and he has immediately ordered an inquiry into the matter,” a DHS spokesman said at the time. “The Acting Secretary is committed to ensuring that all DHS personnel uphold the principles of professionalism, impartiality and respect for civil rights and civil liberties, particularly as it relates to the exercise of First Amendment rights.”