How Southern politicians hamstrung the fight against right-wing domestic terror
Back in April 2009, an internal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report on political violence by radicalized right-wing groups and individuals operating in the U.S. was leaked to a conservative radio host in California. Driven by coverage from WorldNetDaily, a right-wing website that promotes false conspiracy theories, news of the leak went viral in the newly ascendant tea party circles.
The report, titled "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment," was a joint project between DHS and the FBI as part of a law enforcement training module on domestic terrorism that was created in 2007 under the Bush administration.
Given the recent violence linked to white-supremacist ideology, including the mass shootings on July 28 at a garlic festival in California and on Aug. 3 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, the report is eerily prophetic.
DHS laid out the increase in violent white-supremacist and other extremist groups driven by conspiracy theories. The report also discussed the role of economic hardship and global trade on demographic groups susceptible to recruitment, the danger of domestic terror groups recruiting members of the armed forces, and the burgeoning role of social media being used for indoctrination and propaganda.
The report noted risk factors for domestic terrorism including the election of the first black president and the Great Recession. It also cited the tendency of domestic terrorists to use divisive issues like abortion as recruitment tools, and it devoted an entire section to illegal immigration as a motivating factor for right-wing extremists. In addition, DHS called out the rising risk of "lone wolf" and small cell attacks that come with little to no warning but with great violence.
What was the reaction to the report? Congressional Republicans, driven by conservative media, had a proverbial cow. As did the exploding tea party movement.
GOP members of Congress immediately accused federal law enforcement of taking part in a political witch hunt. They distorted, mischaracterized and misquoted parts of the report that discussed the recruitment of veterans into radical movements, accusing DHS and the Obama administration of being unpatriotic and smearing veterans. They complained that DHS was calling core Republican tenets, like opposition to abortion, "terrorist" ideology — never mind that the report addressed only illegal activity and the risk thereof.
And members of Congress from Southern states — some of which have since experienced attacks by domestic right-wing extremists — played key roles in shutting down action in response to the report.
Backed by fellow Republican lawmakers including Reps. Michael McCaul of Texas and Gus Bilirakis of Florida, Peter King of New York, then the ranking minority member of the House Homeland Security Committee, promptly called for hearings to investigate DHS and the report. All three men continue to serve in the House today and were among the lawmakers who last month voted against a House resolution to condemn President Trump's use of racist language. Responding to the El Paso massacre, McCaul tweeted that he was "overwhelmed with grief" and would "continue to monitor the situation."
Soon after the DHS report came to light, House Republicans took to the floor to attack the agency and the document. They were led by Rep. John Carter, a Texas Republican and a key figure in the racist "birther" movement that sought to cast doubt on President Obama's U.S. citizenship. Carter decried the report as slurring the U.S. armed forces:
One of the things they tell us in this report is very sad in light of what our Army has been going through, which is to watch out for returning, disgruntled military veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan in that they have the potential to be right-wing terrorists.
In doing so, Carter ignored previous domestic terror attacks involving white-supremacist U.S. veterans, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed more than 160 people and wounded almost 700 others; the 1995 murder of a black couple in Fayetteville, North Carolina, by neo-Nazi members of the 82nd Airborne, a crime that revealed a violent white supremacist cell operating out of nearby Fort Bragg; and the 2008 attack on a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee, in which two people were killed and six wounded. He also ignored the 2006 findings of Pentagon investigators that hundreds, possibly thousands, of active-duty service members belonged to violent white supremacist organizations.
Carter, who continues to represent Texas in the House, at the time was joined in condemning the report on the House floor by Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican who continues to represent North Carolina. After a rambling statement regarding states rights and the 10th Amendment, Foxx — ignoring a history of terrorist attacks against U.S. abortion clinics and providers — said:
There is also not a shred of evidence anywhere to back up the claim made here that pro-life Americans who hold deeply rooted beliefs in the immorality of abortion are a threat to our Homeland Security.
On May 31, 2009, only several weeks after Foxx made those remarks on the House floor, Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider, was assassinated in Kansas by an anti-abortion extremist. Tiller was murdered while worshipping at church.
Foxx has proven less than eager to speak out about right-wing extremist violence. In fact, the Winston-Salem Journal recently called her out for her silence in the wake of the El Paso massacre. Carter has also refrained from tweeting or releasing a formal statement about the shooting.
Among the other Southern lawmakers who took to the House floor to attack the DHS report were Texas Republicans Kevin Brady and Michael Burgess. They also decried the report's mention of military veterans. Brady said the focus needed to be on the "real terrorists," by which he apparently meant Muslims:
It seems to me we have got the gun pointed at ourselves when we really ought to be, again, protecting this country against the real terrorists who threaten our way of life, not those inside who are trying to preserve it.
Questioned recently by a reporter in the wake of the El Paso massacre, Brady said he was "horrified" and cited a need to "go deeper than just a bumper sticker issue," adding: "This one is going to take real thought and real action." Meanwhile, Burgess appeared on Fox News to praise Trump's statement about the recent shootings and his mention of temporary gun-violence protective orders, adding that he thought part of the tragedy of the situation was that some House members were reluctant to give the president a political win.
Fox News also served as a platform for GOP lawmakers to denounce the DHS report back in 2009. For example, former Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas complained to the outlet that DHS was profiling Americans based solely on their political ideology, while Florida's Bilirakis appeared on Fox to demand that DHS apologize for insinuating veterans would commit acts of terror.
The DHS report faced attacks in the U.S. Senate as well. Republicans Richard Burr of North Carolina, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and David Vitter of Louisiana were among the lawmakers who joined Oklahoma's James Inhofe in sending a highly publicized letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano about the DHS report. In it they complained:
… the report identifies those individuals who believe in such issues as pro-life legislation, limited government, legal versus illegal immigration and limited federal government as potential terrorist threats. We can assure you that these beliefs are held by citizens of all races, party affiliations and sex, and should not be listed as a factor in determining potential terror threats. A better way to describe them is as citizens exercising their First Amendment rights.
While DeMint and Vitter have since left the Senate, Inhofe remains. So does Burr, who now chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. Responding to the recent shootings in both El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, Burr tweeted that they were "acts of pure evil. We mourn the lives tragically lost, and my prayers are with the victims, their families, and the first responders who rushed to help."
Conservative media figures joined Republican lawmakers in attacking the report, with Fox News commentator Michelle Malkin deriding it as "one of the most embarrassingly shoddy pieces of propaganda I'd ever read" and "a piece of crap." DHS and the Obama administration took a primetime beating every night from Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly. Meanwhile, tea party enthusiasts began sporting T-shirts with "Domestic Terrorist" printed on the front.
How did the Obama administration, barely 100 days in office, respond to the right-wing onslaught? It rolled over.
Seemingly blindsided by the reaction on the right and stung by criticism from groups like the VFW and American Legion, the White House was less than enthusiastic in defending DHS. When asked about the report, White House spokesman Nick Shapiro tepidly responded, "The president is focused not on politics but rather taking the steps necessary to protect all Americans from the threat of violence and terrorism regardless of its origins."
Some congressional Democrats joined their Republican colleagues in criticizing DHS. For example, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, then chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, wrote a letter to DHS Secretary Napolitano expressing the same concerns as King, Burr, DeMint, and the rest of the House Republicans while questioning the report's methodology and process. Thompson even supported a resolution put forth by King demanding that DHS produce information and documents on the research behind and drafting of the report. In other words, he was going to let the Republicans on his committee investigate the investigators. Thompson continues to serve in the House and once again chairs the Homeland Security Committee.
Days later, Napolitano publicly apologized in a CNN interview. "I know that some veterans' groups were offended by the fact that veterans were mentioned in this assessment," she said. "So, I apologize for that offense. It was certainly not intended."
On May 13, 2009, Napolitano testified before the House Homeland Security Committee and muddied the waters even more. She threw DHS intelligence analysts under the bus, apologizing to committee Republicans for some of the language used in the report. Napolitano went on to claim the report had not been authorized for distribution to outside law enforcement and that it was still under a review process when it was mistakenly released by a DHS employee. The insinuation was that DHS analysts had not followed internal procedures. She also announced that the report had been removed from distribution and was no longer publicly available.
But strikingly, Napolitano never withdrew the overall threat assessments. In fact, there was no discussion of the threat assessments at all in the committee hearing. Not one Democrat or Republican asked about the actual conclusions of the report or the data behind them. Instead, they complained about the mention of veterans and what they considered an overly broad definition of "right wing."
What should have served as the basis for serious congressional hearings on the threat of domestic terrorism and whether federal law enforcement needed surveillance and investigative tools similar to those in international terrorism cases quickly devolved into conspiracy theory-driven partisan fodder and nonsense. Blinded by raw politics, Congress failed to do its job, and the U.S. was deprived of an important moment to address the longstanding dangers of rightwing extremist violence.
Two weeks later, on May 30, 2009, Raul Flores Jr. and his 9-year-old daughter, Brisenia, were murdered in their Ariveca, Arizona, home by members of an anti-immigrant militia called the Minutemen American Defense. Some of the killers also had ties to the white-supremacist Aryan Nation.
A 2016 Government Accountability Office report found that between 2009 and 2016 there were at least 34 fatal attacks in the U.S. by neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other right-wing extremists, resulting in the deaths of 72 people. During that same period, there were 13 fatal terror attacks in the U.S. driven by radical Islam, killing 64 people. But by 2018, right-wing extremism accounted for 94 percent of the terror-related fatalities in the U.S., 47 deaths in all, according to the Anti-Defamation League. That's more than double the numbers from 2017.
Last month, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray reported that federal authorities made at least 100 arrests for domestic terrorism related to white supremacy since December 2018 alone, putting this year on track to be the worst year on record in the U.S. for right-wing violence.
Victims of right-wing terror have been killed and injured at churches, a Sikh temple, synagogues, police stations, restaurants, stores, banks, and military bases. More than a few of these attacks have taken place in the South, from the 2015 mass shooting of worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, to the 2017 attack-by-vehicle during a far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
And now, the massacre in El Paso. Many of the same Southern lawmakers that helped suppress the DHS report in 2009 are still in office. Some are in key legislative positions. Unless their attitudes change, the societal and political instability from domestic right-wing terrorism will continue to rise. So will the body count.
Greg is a North Carolina attorney who also serves as the chancellor of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.