How the Political Right Bullied the Department of Homeland Security Into Ignoring the Threat of Right-Wing Extremism
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This article has been updated.
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 Napolitano apologizing 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 the Washington 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.