How the Political Right Bullied the Department of Homeland Security Into Ignoring the Threat of Right-Wing Extremism
Check out my latest article at AlterNet:
In the wake of the terrorist attack in Norway by right-wing Christian extremist Anders Breivik, conservative media pundits rushed to vilify anyone who brought up the underlying far-right ideology that fueled Breivik’s violence.
The uproar that follows any suggestion that right-wing extremism is on the rise works to silence the conversation about the danger of right-wing militancy. According to disturbing revelations by a former Homeland Security Intelligence Analyst, the consequences of this dynamic extend to the highest branches of the US government.
For six years, Darryl Johnson headed a Department of Homeland Security team tracking domestic extremist groups. Now Johnson, who is no longer with DHS, says that conservative furor over the report’s findings pressured Homeland Security to abandon reporting on and monitoring the rising threat of right-wing extremism for the past two years.
In April 2009, DHS issued an intelligence assessment, co-authored by Johnson, titled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” The document was one of many threat assessments shared between DHS and state and local law enforcement agencies to keep them apprised of potential and looming threats, and warned of a surge in right-wing extremism due to the election of the country’s first black president and the economic recession.
Although the report was intended only for distribution to law enforcement agencies, it was immediately leaked to the media causing a political firestorm among conservative pundits, who wrongly suggested that it labeled all conservatives as potential terrorists.
DHS initially defended the report, but within days caved to political pressure and practically disowned it, with Secretary Napolitanoapologizing to the American Legion for the report’s mention of military veterans. But DHS did more than just publicly buckle under the political weight of conservative critics. According to Johnson, the department effectively dismantled his intelligence team following the right’s uproar.
In an in-depth interview published in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report, Johnson reveals the level of sway the political right had in thwarting intelligence work on right-wing extremism. He says DHS deliberately “mischaracterized the report as unauthorized, even though it had passed through proper channels” and “instituted restrictive policies that brought the important work of his unit to a virtual standstill.” As a result, Johnson “left DHS in dismay and was followed by almost all the members of his team, leaving a single analyst where there had been six.” In comparison, there are at least 25 analysts devoted to tracking Islamic terrorism.
When questioned about Johnson’s claims — which have been confirmed by current and former department officials in theWashington Post – DHS officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have repeatedly disputed his account and insist that “the level of activity by right-wing extremist groups has remained consistent over the past few years.” In addition, they claim “the perception of increased extremist activity may be due to increased awareness of the threat by the government and the public.” But the numbers beg to differ.
Right Wing Extremism on the Rise
Johnson’s report was consistent with data from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which finds that hate groups topped 1,000 for the first time since SPLC began counting such groups in the 1980s. The most dramatic growth was seen in antigovernment “Patriot” groups — “militias and other extremist organizations that see the federal government as their enemy” — which has reignited over the past couple of years following a decade of relative quiet. SPLC’s Intelligence Project identified 824 anti-government “Patriot” groups that were active in 2010, up from just 149 in 2008.
According to Mark Potok, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project, these groups are driven by resentment over changing racial demographics, which he describes as, “The idea that the country is becoming less white every day and in fact the prediction by the census bureau that whites will lose their majority about the year 2050 in the United States is very important. Virtually every white supremacist in America knows that date.” Other drivers include “frustration over the economy, and the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories and propaganda aimed at various minorities.”
Potok told AlterNet that events following the 2009 DHS report have proved it to be prescient.
In May 2009, just one month after the report’s release, “an anti-abortion zealot murdered Dr. George Tiller in Kansas. In June 2009, neo-Nazi James von Brunn murdered a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. In March 2010, nine members of a Michigan militia were charged with seditious conspiracy and attempted use of weapons of mass destruction in connection with an alleged plot to murder police officers.”
On May 20, 2010, two West Memphis Arkansas police officers were shot to death during a routine traffic stop by a father-son duo of “sovereign citizens,” a group of US residents who believe the government has no authority over them. West Memphis Police Chief Bob Paudert, whose son was one of the officers killed, told me that prior to the loss of his son, he had never heard of sovereign citizens, nor had any other law enforcement officials he spoke to about the matter. After some digging and research he discovered that his son’s murder was not an isolated incident, and in fact sovereign citizens were responsible for dozens of police officer deaths around the country.
Paudert was particularly surprised to learn that the Sovereign movement is estimated at 300,000 people strong and growing, which is why he was disappointed in the federal government’s failure to alert state and local law enforcement that such a threat existed. Paudert says he is absolutely positive that had they been alerted and trained to recognize sovereign citizens, “my son would still be alive today.”
Conservatives Throw a Temper Tantrum
The loudest outcry came from the right-wing shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh, who claimed that Janet Napolitano and Barack Obama were “portraying standard, ordinary, everyday conservatives as posing a bigger threat to this country than al-Qaeda terrorists or genuine enemies of this country like Kim Jong-Il.” Sean Hannity warned his Fox News viewers that “if you have a pro-life bumper sticker on your car, if you have an ‘America is overtaxed’ bumper sticker, if you have a pro-Second Amendment bumper sticker, they’re viewing you potentially as a radical.”
In possibly the most deranged interpretation, conservative blogger Michelle Malkin wrote that the report was a “hit job on conservatives” and “one of the most embarrassingly shoddy pieces of propaganda I’d ever read out of DHS. I couldn’t believe it was real….the piece of crap report issued on April 7 is a sweeping indictment of conservatives.”
In a sad sort of irony, Johnson told SPLC that the conservative media personalities who misinterpreted and attacked his report “would have been shocked to know that I personify conservatism. I’m an Eagle Scout. I’m a registered Republican. I’m Mormon. In fact, I was helping the Boy Scouts with a fundraiser when I heard the report being attacked on the news.”
Outrage over the report’s findings quickly spread to Congress, where several conservative lawmakers demanded the ouster of DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano. Among them was Rep. John Carter, R-Tex., who remarked, “We shouldn’t even give her the respect of letting her resign. She should be fired by the administration for accusing honest, American citizens — because of their political beliefs — of being domestic terrorists.”
The self-described conservative and Christian non-profit Thomas More Law Center went even further and filed a lawsuit against Secretary Napolitano on behalf a Michigan-based anti-abortion group, claiming “the DHS report was all part of a conspiracy between the Obama administration and liberal groups to violate their constitutional rights.”
The section of the report that stirred the most controversy referred to “disgruntled military veterans” and cautioned that “rightwing extremists would attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans to boost their violent capabilities.”
This did not sit well with David Rehbein, the commander of the veterans’ organization American Legion, who wrote in a letter to Secretary Napolitano, “To continue to use McVeigh as an example of the stereotypical disgruntled military veteran is as unfair as using Osama bin Laden as the sole example of Islam.” Had Rehbein actually read the full report he would have discovered that this specific concern was based on factual data collected by the FBI.
The DHS assessment cited a July 2008 report by the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division under the Bush administration, titled “White Supremacist Recruitment of Military Personnel since 9/11.” Based on its findings the 2008 FBI report observed that “some returning military veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have joined extremist groups,” and that “military experience is found throughout the white supremacist extremist movement as the result of recruitment campaigns by extremist groups and self-recruitment by veterans sympathetic to white supremacist causes.” Furthermore, the SPLC notes that “based on analysis of FBI case files from October 2001 to May 2008, the report identified 203 military personnel or veterans who were active members in white supremacist organizations during that period.”
It’s not surprising that conservatives threw a fit. What’s disturbing is that these conservative complaints prompted DHS to withdraw the report.
Pretending the Threat Doesn’t Exist
I spoke with Johnson, who has been following right-wing extremism in a professional capacity since the early ‘90s. Upon the Democratic nomination for president of then Senator Obama, Johnson says that based on his experience and expertise, he immediately recognized that “this would be a huge recruiting tool for groups like white supremacists, militia extremists, sovereign citizen extremists, those extremists groups that are on the fringes of the right of the political spectrum, which we refer to as right-wing extremists in the counterterrorism community.”
When it was clear that Barack Obama would win, Johnson became worried about the “potential radicalization factor” that would ensue following the election of America’s first black president. “It would agitate people to go beyond their mainstream and law-abiding protest activity to more criminal activity and violence because people would see that these ‘enemies’ so to speak, these minorities in America are actually integrated in society and they’re actually fulfilling the American dream.”
All of this prompted the drafting of the report in the early months of the Obama administration.
He chose to go public because “the conditions that existed back in 2008 and 2009 when we drafted this document still persist today….the climate in this country from a political standpoint and economic standpoint has not changed. The economy is still sluggish, unemployment’s still flirting with 10 percent, and there’s this anti-government sentiment and agitation out there in this country. That’s one thing that concerns me is that we’ve had two years now where these people have been boiling in this environment that could possibly agitate somebody to carry out a violent act.”
Mark Potok told AlterNet that DHS’s handling of the report’s criticism was “nothing more than an act of political cowardice,” but it doesn’t change the report’s disturbing accuracy.
The Southern Poverty Law Center keeps a detailed and unsettling list of “major terrorist plots and racist rampages that have emerged from the American radical right in the years since Oklahoma City,” a pattern Potok says continues to this day. That prompted SPLC’s president, J. Richard Cohen, to send a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano two months ago, urging her to reassess the level of resources that DHS is devoting to the threat of non-Islamic domestic terrorism.
The letter highlights several recent examples of thwarted attacks, one of which occurred this past January, when “a neo-Nazi activist was arrested for planting a bomb along an MLK Day parade route in Spokane, Washington. That same month, another neo-Nazi was arrested on his way to the Arizona-Mexico border and later charged with possessing explosive devices packed with ball bearings – to “maximize human carnage,” as a federal prosecutor put it. In March, authorities arrested five members of a militia in Alaska and charged them with plotting to murder or kidnap police officers and judges if their leader, who was then fleeing prosecution on weapons charges, were arrested or killed.” Unfortunately, Secretary Napolitano has yet to respond to the SPLC’s letter.
That the right’s outrage over the report managed to influence the Department of Homeland Security should raise alarm bells for anyone who is concerned about homegrown extremism. It’s frightening that the US government bowed to political pressure. The atrocity that took place in Norway is a reminder of the brutality that ideological extremists are capable of dishing out.
According to Johnson, Anders Breivik ”was under the radar, he acquired relatively unsophisticated weaponry and was able to go and target people that he opposed because of his ideology and beliefs and was able to kill close to 80 people, and it was done effortlessly. He didn’t go to some place in Pakistan and learn how to build a bomb. He learned how to do this on the Internet, and he was able to acquire these materials legally. And I know for a fact that that is going on here in this country, people are stockpiling weaponry.”
Potok believes the right’s ability to silence the conversation about right-wing extremism will have fatal consequences, warning, “The danger of pretending this movement doesn’t exist is that it will grow more and more deeply entrenched in our society and more dangerous. There’s an immediate criminal danger. Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 men women and children in 15 seconds. It absolutely could happen again. It hasn’t because we are lucky and because law enforcement has done a fine job overall.”
Similarly, Daryl Johnson fears that, “These incidents are starting to add up. Yet our legislators, politicians and national leaders don’t appear too concerned about this. So my greatest fear is that domestic terrorists in this country will somehow become emboldened to the point of carrying out a mass-casualty attack, because they perceive that no one is being vigilant about the threat from within. This is what keeps me up at night.”