As a follow-on to the excellent post last week by our Security Debrief colleague Erroll Southers about why we need to “get it right” to counter the impact of “Homegrown Violent Extremism” (HVE), I want to add another reason why the McCaul legislative proposal – the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Act of 2015 (H.R. 2899) – could benefit from a bit more study and debate. The bill, which would create a CVE Office within the Department of Homeland Security, is a step in the right direction and will fill a hole that should not exist in DHS.

It was not always this way. A few years ago, the Science & Technology Directorate (S&T) had a separate division devoted to “Human Factors.” This division had a broad portfolio, which included the study of the causes and prevention of radical extremism, including opportunities for interdisciplinary research on “adaptive adversaries,” in order to develop a strategic decision support model. Unfortunately, then S&T Under Secretary Tara O’Toole gave in to short-sighted congressional pressure, mostly from the House Homeland Security Appropriations Committee, to shift S&T activity more towards “widgets” and away from the harder scientific research about human behaviors. The Human Factors staff was merged into the Critical Infrastructure group and eventually many of the staff left S&T.

The Appropriators had severely cut the S&T budget demanding that S&T show them what they were getting for their money – and it was clear that Congress had little interest back then in funding Human Factors research. The clear inference was that Congress wanted “things” they could hold and show to others. They wanted their appropriations to result in manufacturing new technologies, which ideally would be made in their congressional district, and a study of the factors that lead to radicalization just didn’t make the cut. Plus, the libertarians on one side and the liberal privacy community came together to suggest that any studies of American citizens might – just might – violate protected constitutional rights.

The result was that meaningful research into the causes of HVE effectively stopped except for some minimal work through the University Centers of Excellence. In my opinion, dismantling Human Factors was a huge mistake – and now Congressman McCaul is trying to correct that error. As Erroll pointed out last week, it needs to be done – but it needs to be done right.

Chairman McCaul needs to build greater stakeholder buy-in and address the questions that Erroll raised in his blog posting. McCaul also needs to explore the reasons why his congressional colleagues failed to see the value in human behavioral research to understand and counter HVE in ALL communities, not just one religious group. Another public hearing would be a good start.