A panel of experts met Tuesday at the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC to discuss the growing use of media outlets by terrorists to spread their message of violent extremism.
The event was moderated by Peter Earnest, the founding executive director of the International Spy Museum and a former CIA operations officer. Earnest showed several videos which showed firsthand how terrorists use their own media outlets to exalt suicide bombings, incite violence, recruit terrorists and fundraise online.
Particularly disturbing was a video of a Middle Eastern kindergarten graduation in which young children were filmed showcasing their combat skills; crawling on the ground in army fatigues as though on a battlefield and marching around in a circle with guns in a perverted game of follow the leader.
Topics addressed were the question of whether or not governments should shut down these media outlets to protect their citizens from harm, if terror media is still considered free speech and if new media can be used against violent extremists.
Panel members included Juan Zarate, former deputy national security advisor for combating terrorism and former assistant secretary of the Treasury for terrorist financing and financial crimes; Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has worked to shut down Hezbollah and other terrorist owned-media around the world; Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who is an ardent supporter of free speech regardless of viewpoint; and Todd Stein, legislative director for Senator Lieberman, and formerly a lawyer on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, who wrote the influential document for the U.S. Congress exposing how terrorist organizations employ online media to circulate their message.
Ms. Lieberman stressed that though speech is protected from government censorship, almost all the time, there are certain very well defined and long established exceptions in which it is not.
When speech asks for “imminent, lawless action,” she explained, “then it falls outside of the protections of our first amendment, and rightly so.”
However, she stressed that a distinction must be made in the case of outlets which engage in both acceptable expressive activity and terror. Censorship of inappropriate programming should be practiced, but shutting down media outlets entirely would undermine American values. She noted that the United States has passed judgment on other countries which have banned American government news and propaganda, and that this criticism “may ring a bit hollow” if we engage in similar practices.