DHS 'bystander' training singles out pro-lifers, government critics as 'radicalization' suspects

Clergy, spouses, bartenders should keep tabs on "middle-aged" women who are "increasingly fervent" against abortion, white men who rant about government online and go to rallies, domestic terrorism materials say.

Published: May 7, 2023 11:04pm

Nine days after President Biden's inauguration, a Department of Homeland Security office proposed creating several "Choose Your Own Adventure" videos to show Americans how to identify and mitigate "radicalization and potential violence."

Among the Americans that worry the sprawling bureaucracy created in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: middle-aged pro-life women, white men who question the government, and divorced mothers who suspect "government connections to child abuse and trafficking."

The Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships, then known as the Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention, came up with five "scenarios" with three scenes each.

The proposal would present unspecified viewers acting as "bystanders" with "difficult choices that approximate real-life decisions," and a DHS employee would explain the consequences of their choices. Four of the five scenarios feature viewpoints typically ascribed to elements of the political right.

The "outline" is dated Jan. 29, 2021, part of a larger cache of documents related to DHS' domestic terrorism programs obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. America First Legal shared them with Just the News.

"Your moral beliefs on abortion and anti-government opinions are being expanded into a new category of crime that will be policed using your own taxpayer dollars," the Foundation for Freedom Online, which has also reviewed the FOIA cache, told Just the News.

It's not clear whether the specific videos were ever created, and if so, to whom they were shown and over what period. DHS didn't respond to Just the News queries Sunday.

But the department has awarded at least one grant for creation of choose-your-own-adventure cyber education, according to a winning vendor's 2014 press release. The DHS Cyber Security Division's 2017 technology guide cites a partnership with the same vendor for CYOA and "comic-based education and evaluation."

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, a five-year-old DHS component, also creates comic-related graphic novels to steer public opinion on what qualifies as misinformation, and a State Department office does the same with internet games.

The FOIA cache opens with an Aug. 25, 2020 memo approved by James McCament, deputy undersecretary in the Office of Strategy, Policy and Plans. 

It cites the First Amendment as a hurdle to charging "domestic terrorists seeking to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent civil unrest," referring to racial protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd.

Even as McCament's memo claims the government "does not and should not investigate individuals based solely on their ideology," the five scenarios single out specific ideologies as worthy of scrutiny from spouses, siblings, teammates, roommates, neighbors, bartenders, hairdressers, professors and even clergy.

The format resembles the FBI's reported visits to mosques in 2014 to pressure Muslim leaders to identify current and nascent terrorists in their congregations and communities, apparently the result of then-Attorney General Eric Holder's announced pilot program to enlist "religious leaders" to "counter violent extremism."

The "Middle-Aged Pro-Life Advocate" scenario describes a married woman, Ann, who has become "increasingly devout" since her mother's death and "increasingly more fervent about her pro-life stance."

When she asks her pastor "if the bible justifies violence in defense of life," the pastor's choices  are counseling Ann, talking to her husband about "changes in behavior" or quizzing a member of Ann's church group on "her recent interests." When Ann shouts "baby killer" at the mayor's ribbon-cutting for a bakery, the owner can call her husband or pastor for more information or visit Ann's house to "chat."

"Call the sheriff" is the first suggestion when, during a hairdresser appointment, Ann vaguely calls for "put[ting] a stop to the planned parenthood [sic] office" and shows the hairdresser "videos of violent protesters on her phone." The hairdresser can also talk to staff about their impressions of Ann's behavior or "research the groups" she mentioned.

A scenario titled "Anti-gov/authority Abusive Parent/Stepdad" describes a married father, Pete, who doesn't interact much with neighbors and goes out to drink. 

When a friend sees him "post on some radical sites with violent tendencies," the friend can "keep closer tabs" on Pete's social media, call his wife or ask him "at softball next week" about his interest in the groups. A neighbor who witnesses Pete yell at his wife, make "threatening gestures" and storm out of the house can ask the wife or Pete what happened or "be more attentive" to the couple's activities.

Pete's bartender should take note when he brings a "new group of friends" who talk about going to a political rally and "messing with" counterprotesters. The bartender can "discreetly" ask him how he met them or call Pete's "old drinking buddy" or ask other staff how his behavior has changed.

"Courtney," a divorced mother of two in a new town, has become "fixated on conspiracy theories" on government involvement in "hurting children," according to another scenario. A high school friend who follows Courtney on social media and notices her increasing anger can call her ex-husband, monitor her posts or message her about "how things are going in the new city."

When Courtney launches into a tirade against "several specific public figures" at dinner with her mother and boyfriend, the mother can ask Courtney why she's so angry, question the boyfriend on "where these theories may be coming from" or call a crisis hotline.

When the boyfriend notices her "open browser windows" that suggest "a path toward violence" based on "conspiracies involving public figures," he can ask her what she's reading about, talk to her parents about changes in behavior or follow her online behavior more closely.

The other two scenarios concern high school and college students: a gamer who has racially tinged conflicts with a teammate and flashes a gun to his girlfriend, and an animal rights activist with a newfound interest in her chemistry class who now attends "controversial protests." 

Out of the five, only the gamer's scenario specifies the "individual narrative slides" the viewers are shown based on their choices.

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