A U.S. Air Force airman at Petersen Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

© 2017 Reuters
Who does the US government think counts as an “extremist,” and what kinds of tracking might people experience as a result? These are questions Human Rights Watch has asked repeatedly and whose importance has been highlighted by new revelations.

Last week, a news website covering the US state of New Jersey reported that a “national policy” allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to monitor “non-active military members” it believes are at a “high risk” – apparently, of embracing “extremist” views and committing violent offenses.

The article described the potentially related case of a Muslim veteran in the state who has endured multiple invasive visits and calls from US authorities over the last four years for reasons that remain unexplained.

Days later, another news organization documented the participation of several current and former US military personnel in a white supremacist group whose members have allegedly engaged in violence. In contrast with the alleged monitoring of the Muslim New Jersey veteran, this article raised questions about how seriously the Defense Department and other authorities were treating involvement in white-power groups.

This reporting underscores the need to question who the government is watching under the “extremist” heading, and why.

Last fall Human Rights Watch asked this as we revealed a Defense Department policy (different from the one described above, but possibly related) that allows the monitoring of so-called “homegrown violent extremists” under a shadowy executive order – without setting any known criteria for who falls into this category. We had obtained documents from the US Air Force discussing the policy and highlighting the perpetrators of the San Bernardino and Pulse Nightclub shootings as examples of “homegrown violent extremists” – even though none of those perpetrators had served in the military. However, they all identified as Muslim, pointing to larger concerns that any monitoring may be disproportionately focused on that group.

Holding seemingly “extreme” beliefs doesn’t necessarily mean someone is inclined to violence. This is one reason government monitoring of perceived “extremists,” in the absence of evidence to believe they’re plotting crimes, raises concerns about arbitrary or discriminatory surveillance. It may also discourage people from fully exercising their freedoms of expression and religion.

Human Rights Watch has requested more information from the Defense Department and FBI about whom they view as “homegrown violent extremists” and why. The risks to rights are significant, and the public deserves answers.