Thursday, June 30, 2011

Dismantling security:
The new SPLC report on DHS


For 40 years, the Southern Poverty Law Center has spoken truth to power by wielding the power of truth, and an impressively dogged vigilance, against the enemies of the domestic tranquility even when no one pays attention. Maybe especially when no one pays attention. In an era of almost boundless proliferation of hate groups (more than 1,000 around the country, the organization estimates) and a just-as-boundless hardening of feelings toward minority groups in America, the SPLC has made a habit of calling the question of our fidelity to the principles that make this nation what it is, or what it purports to be.

So it was a surprise that was no surprise that the SPLC just reported on the disconnect between the general perception of who terrorists are, and the truth, and the consequences of that disconnect.

In the summer 2011 edition of the SPLC Report, a periodic newsletter sent to SPLC members (and those, like yours truly, who’ve let their membership lapse), the organization reports that Daryl Johnson, a former terrorism analyst for the Department of Homeland Security, told SPLC that the department had eviscerated the unit investigating non-Islamic domestic terrorism, after receiving complaints from conservatives over a 2009 DHS report on right-wing extremism in the United States.

Excerpting the SPLC report can’t do it the justice it deserves. Here, then, some hearty chunks of the interview between Johnson and SPLC’s Heidi Beirich, an interview whose central points haven’t seen that much light of day in the mainstream media:

Daryl Johnson has been battling extremist groups for two decades. He got his start in the field in 1991, when he worked on counterterrorism for the U.S. Army. In 1999, Johnson left the Army for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, where he was a subject-matter expert on violent antigovernment groups. In 2004, officials at the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS) approached Johnson to take a key post as the senior domestic terrorism analyst. He accepted and, for six years, Johnson led a team of experts on domestic extremist groups.

While at DHS, Johnson and his team wrote the April 7, 2009 report, "Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment." The report, which was intended for law enforcement only, was quickly leaked and caused a firestorm among some on the political right who accused DHS of painting all kinds of conservatives as potential Timothy McVeighs.

JOHNSON: The report evolved in a complicated way. It began after a phone call from the U.S. Capitol police in January 2007. They wanted help with then-Sen. Barack Obama's announcement of his candidacy for president. We monitored the Internet for about a month or so looking for threats to Obama. We didn't see anything threat-related, but I started thinking, "What if the U.S. elects a black president? What impact will this have on extremism in this country?" ...

When Obama looked as though he was going to win the nomination [in August 2008], we started an outline. Between April and October 2008, we were immersed in collecting data. My team was still writing a draft of the report when Janet Napolitano became the new DHS secretary in January 2009.

Three months into Obama's administration, Napolitano asked us four questions: Are we seeing a rise in domestic right-wing extremism? If so, is it related to the election of a black president? What are the chances of it escalating to violence? And what are we going to do about it?

I got a tasking from the secretary, which demanded a quick turnaround. We went through all the necessary coordination; many people reviewed the draft and made comments. Several people signed off on the report: two supervisors, the Office of General Counsel, multiple editors, etc. The Office of Privacy signed off, and the Office of Policy had no suggestions.

One office raised issues — the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties [CRCL]. At the time, we weren't required to give them the report, but my boss thought we should run it past them. They had edits, but the main issue related to the definition of right-wing extremism. That office wanted a narrow definition limited to violent groups and individuals. Our subject-matter experts and management felt the definition needed to be broader.

Under CRCL's definition, if you were in the Klan, burned crosses, had a terrorist in your house and donated money to groups advocating violence, you still would not qualify as a right-wing extremist.

SPLC: Any idea who leaked it? 


JOHNSON: The report went to the fusion centers [joint federal, state and local terrorism task forces] and various law enforcement agencies. They, in turn, blasted it out to many more people. It's virtually impossible to know who leaked it, though I have some hunches. Obviously, the person who leaked the report didn't agree with it and had a political agenda.


SPLC: How did you react when the report came under attack?


JOHNSON: It was an extremely frustrating time, to see conservatives and media folks taking the report out of context and misinterpreting it. [Conservative columnist] Michelle Malkin called it Obama's "hit job" to target conservatives and others said it called everyone "on the right" a terrorist. … This report was not politically motivated.

SPLC: What about Napolitano?


JOHNSON: Napolitano initially supported the report. She issued an official press release [on April 14, 2009] that said DHS has the authority to look at all types of threats. And we need to be vigilant. It was very supportive and direct.

Unfortunately, not too many people listened, and they kept applying political pressure. … I don't know whether her staff advised her to, but she eventually backtracked. The DHS press spokesman came up with this story that it was all unauthorized and orchestrated by a rogue group of analysts. DHS caved in.
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The SPLC report on DHS sparked The Washington Post to pick up the ball. A Post reporter conducted additional interviews and pursued more investigation of the matter, coming to much the same conclusion in a June 7 story as the SPLC report.



And Ed Schultz, host of MSNBC’s “The Ed Show,” interviewed Mark Potok of SPLC’s Intelligence Project about the issue after the Post's report, so it hasn’t gone completely unnoticed. Just undernoticed. You have to wonder how Keith Olbermann overlooked the gravity of this story as a great first-night report for the new “Countdown” on Current TV.

Has The New York Times got anything in the works on this, or the Los Angeles Times? CBS News started to cover the story back in April 2009, when Johnson’s report was leaked. Where’s the followup now — after the attempted MLK march bombing in Spokane, and in the wake of Jared Lee Loughner and his shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of six other people, all early this year? Are Politico or The Hill planning any fresh reporting on the matter, looking at the story’s political dimensions?

Maybe it’s because all the explosiveness, the BOMBSHELLness of this story has already occurred off their watch; maybe the Multiple Wise Men at the broadcast and cable networks have decided they’d rather not be mouthpieces reciting the facts of a news story that not only didn’t originate with their news organizations, it didn’t originate at a news org at all. Maybe now, three weeks after the new SPLC report came to light, they don’t see any upside for them in reporting it.

Whatever the reason, the gravity of this story and its potential impact on American life in the runup to the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and a contentious presidential election couldn’t be greater.

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SPLC reports that after leaving DHS last year, Johnson formed a company, DT Analytics, for consulting work on matters related to violent domestic extremism and homeland security. Regrettably, business will be good.

Johnson offered a warning that couldn’t be more dire in a nation more riven by internal divisions now than at any time in its history.

“These incidents are starting to add up,” Johnson told the SPLC. “Yet our legislators, politicians and national leaders don't appear too concerned about this. So, my greatest fear is that domestic extremists 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. That is what keeps me up at night.”

Image credits: All images: Southern Poverty Law Center, Montgomery, Ala.

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