Uncle Sam Wants You... to Spy on Other Students

Dear Students,
Be careful in the lunchroom when you and your friends discuss the latest version of Call of Duty. You never know who is listening. Don't argue too strenuously in class, don't be critical of the United States, and don't ask too many questions. Teachers and students might not understand where you are coming from and report you to the F.B.I.

The F.B.I. has introduced an interactive online program called "Don't Be a Puppet" for teachers and students to help them identify potential violent extremists. Gamers maneuver through a series of activities designed to help them identify someone who may be falling under the influence of radical extremists. After every correct response, a scissor cuts the puppet's string, until the puppet is finally "freed." Individuals with ties to Islamic fundamentalist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda have not been involved in school shootings in the United States. However religious and civil rights leaders who previewed the game report the website focuses almost entirely on "Islamic extremism."

In an unclassified document released in January 2016 the FBI's Office of Partner Engagement" warned, "High school students are ideal targets for recruitment by violent extremists seeking support for their radical ideologies, foreign fighter networks, or conducting acts of targeted violence within our borders." The bureau insists, "High schools must remain vigilant in educating their students about catalysts that drive violent extremism and the potential consequences of embracing extremist belief." It calls for "observing and assessing concerning behaviors and communications" of students "embracing extremist ideologies."

According to an article posted on Salon, the F.B.I. school spy initiative is similar to a controversial British "anti-terror" mass surveillance program known as "Preventing Violent Extremism" or "Prevent." However while the F.B.I. website is designed to enlist students, the British program primarily recruits teachers.

The British newspaper The Guardian describes a "Prevent" training video for teachers designed to help them identify susceptible students who might be lured into supporting support terrorism. The video ends with the an explanation, "We are not asking you to spy, but to look out for troubling behaviour." However, teachers are "to spot children who might be vulnerable to radicalisation, and dealing with them - if necessary, by referring them to the government's anti-radicalisation programme, Channel. Since 2012, more than 4,000 people have been referred, half of them under-18s - with the youngest a three-year-old from London." Delegates at the 2015 British National Union of Teachers annual conference charged they were being forced to act as "frontline stormtroopers, who listen ... spy and notify the authorities." In July 2015, a petition signed by leading British academics, lawyers and public figures argued these mandates would "divide communities, clamp down on legitimate dissent and have a chilling effect on freedom of speech."

The Salon article argues that the F.B.I. is also based on discredited "McCarthy-era theories of radicalization, in which authorities monitor thoughts and behaviors that they claim to lead to acts of violent subversion, even if those people being watched have not committed any wrongdoing." The Salon article accuses the F.B.I. of recruiting students and teachers as part of a "massive surveillance apparatus" targeting "risk factors that are so broad and vague that virtually any young person could be deemed dangerous and worthy of surveillance, especially if she is socio-economically marginalized or politically outspoken."

If you think enlisting students and teachers as junior spies makes sense for security reasons, the story of Ahmed Mohamed is a cautionary tale. In September 2015 Ahmed brought a homemade digital clock to school in Irving, Texas to show one of his teachers. A different teacher thought it looked like a bomb and reported it to school authorities, leading to Ahmed being handcuffed and questioned by police. While no criminal charges were filed, he was suspended from school for three days.

And despite F.B.I. claims that their goal is intervention and counseling, when a California father, a Silicon Valley executive who is Muslim, spoke with the F.B.I. about his concerns over the behavior of his twenty-two year old son and possible depression, the young man was arrested and taken from their home in handcuffs. It also turns out that the F.B.I was monitoring the young man's phone calls. He now faces a potential twenty-year prison sentence for attempting to support terrorist organizations. It seems the F.B.I. does not provide counseling.

"Educational" materials in the F.B.I. surveillance program provide students with signs that will enable them to identify suspect extremists. They include "Talking about traveling to places that sound suspicious"; "Using code words or unusual language"; "Using several different cell phones and private messaging apps"; and "Studying or taking pictures of potential targets (like a government building)."

Students can sign-up to play Preventing Violent Extremism in Schools at an F.B.I. website and earn a F.B.I. certificate of completion. The website suggests students tell a trusted adult or call 9-1-1 if you discover something suspicious.

So students be sure to remember:
Do not discuss Narnia (C.S. Lewis) or Middle Earth (Tolkin).
Don't share cell phones or have too many Facebook friends.
On vacations and fieldtrips, do not take pictures of the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, or the White House.
And never, never, speak in "hip-hop," "street," "valley," "Pig Latin," or other "strange" codes or unusual languages.

It is also probably time to revise the children's Christmas standard "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." This is my version.

They know if you've been naughty,
They know if you've been nice,
They know if you've been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake.

So children, you better watch out!
You better not cry
You better not pout
I'm telling you why
The F.B.I. is coming to town.

I found online at a website managed by the Major County Sheriff's Association a twenty-eight page pamphlet attributed to the F.B.I. Office of Partners Engagement titled "Preventing Violent Extremism in Schools." The pamphlet is not on the F.B.I. website and when I contacted the bureau via email and phone for confirmation that it is their publication I received no reply. The pamphlet can be accessed at this link. As I read, "teenager" comes across as a mental illness. You should judge its authenticity and evaluate its content yourself. Major points included in the pamphlet are:

1. "High school students are ideal targets for recruitment by violent extremists seeking support for their radical ideologies."

2. "Countering these prevailing dynamics requires a fresh approach that focuses on education and enhancing public safety -- protecting our citizens from becoming radicalized by identifying the catalysts driving extremism."

3. "Youth are embracing many forms of violent extremism; those perpetrated by terrorist organizations or other domestic violent extremist movements, to those maintaining biases towards others due to their race, religion, or sexual orientation."

4. "Youth possess inherent risk factors making them susceptible to violent extremist ideologies or possible recruitment."

5. "Our educators are in a unique position to affect change, impart affirmative messaging, or facilitate intervention activities due to their daily interactions with students."

6. "Countering violent extremism is a shared responsibility between law enforcement, civic leaders, and their communities."

7. "High schools might be at greater risk and students may be more susceptible to embracing violent extremist ideologies, joining extremist organizations, or self radicalizing, if they are unable to withstand the many influential factors and daily stressors in their lives.

8. "Students can readily view stories on nightly news broadcasts, internet websites or social media forums, which highlight foreign or national policy. These stories serve as catalysts or promote grievances for extremist organizations."

9. "Violent extremists troll for youth in social media or online forums, to spot, assess and recruit those who are vulnerable. This targeting of youth is increasingly putting them "at-risk" as many are tech-savvy and often spend large quantities of time on social media networks.

10. "Espousing anti-U.S. sentiment or extremist rhetoric is not a crime and is protected First Amendment activity. The issue is not if the individual voiced his/her support, but rather has advocated imminent violence in support of an extremist organization and that violence is likely to occur as a result."

11. "Consumption of violent propaganda is a primary catalyst in self radicalization."

12. "Normal developmental vulnerabilities common to adolescents make some amenable to the influence of violent extremism, a trajectory that through inhibitors such as community engagement, mentoring, therapy, and education can be altered or suppressed."

13. "In 2000, the FBI conducted a study of school violence, The School Shooter, resulting in the identification of "leakage" -- a common warning behavior for students advocating violence. Leakage occurs when a student intentionally or unintentionally reveals clues to feelings, thoughts, fantasies, attitudes, or intentions that signal an impending act. These clues emerge as subtle threats, boasts, innuendos, predictions, or ultimatums and are conveyed in numerous forms (e.g. stories, diaries, journals, essays, poems, manifestos, letters, songs, drawings, and videos)."