Former DHS Analyst: Agency Bowed to Pressure From Right-Wing Bloggers, and Now the U.S. Is "More Vulnerable"
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Daryl Johnsonhas 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. In fact, it had merely pointed out that some domestic extremists focused on single issues like immigration and abortion and also noted that extremists were interested in recruiting military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Its analysis of the causes of the surge of right-wing radicalism — the election of the nation's first black president and the economy, among other things — still seems completely accurate and is in line with similar findings by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
But DHS ultimately reacted to criticism from conservative columnists and groups like the American Legion by withdrawing the report. (Ironically, given the criticism of his report, Johnson describes himself as a registered Republican who "personifies conservativism.") In the months following the leak, Johnson says in the interview below, DHS gutted its domestic terrorism analysis unit.
Events in the immediate aftermath of DHS' suppression of its report seemed clearly to exonerate its conclusions. In late May 2009, abortion provider George Tiller was shot and killed by an anti-abortion fanatic — just the kind of person the DHS report had warned of in one section. In June 2009, neo-Nazi James von Brunn killed a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., while trying to storm into the building. Many similar attacks and planned attacks by the radical right have followed, right up to the present day.
Since leaving DHS last year, Johnson has formed a company, DT Analytics, to consult and offer training on issues related to violent domestic extremism and homeland security. He also is writing a book that he hopes will set the record straight on what really happened at DHS as well as help state and local law enforcement officials better confront the continuing threat of domestic terrorism.
When did you become interested in domestic terrorism?
Way back in 1983, when I was only 14 years old. At the time, the white supremacist terrorist group the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, or CSA, was generating a lot of media attention. I was fascinated by CSA and a little bit scared by it too. It made me curious to understand why people would quit jobs, leave their families and move to remote Arkansas to start arming themselves for Armageddon. I even sent a letter in 1986 to then-Sen. John Warner [R-VA], as part of my Eagle Scout requirements, that talked about the increasing terrorist activity abroad and I wondered, "How much longer will it take until terrorism arrives in the United States?" In the letter, I wrote, "If terrorism does come to the United States, which I think it will shortly, it will either be started or contributed by the militia." Nine years later, Timothy McVeigh, who was affiliated with the militia movement, blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Ultimately, I turned that interest into a career.