Violent extremism at the DHS: How our 'second Pentagon' failed to avert the most threatening attack on US democracy in centuries
A relative of mine, who works for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) compiling data on foreigners entering the United States, recently posted a curious logo on his Facebook profile: a white Roman numeral three on a black background surrounded by 13 white stars. For those who don’t know what this symbol stands for, it represents the “Three Percenters,” a group that the Anti-Defamation League has identified as an anti-government militia. Its members have a record of violent criminal attacks and strikingly partisan activity, including arrests and guilty pleas in connection with the bombing of a Minnesota mosque in 2017 and appearances as “guards,” carrying assault-style weaponry, at several pro-Trump rallies. Six of its members have been charged with plotting to assault the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
When my husband, a Naval officer of nearly 20 years, saw this symbol on a family member’s Facebook page, he pointed out to me that, despite the Hatch Act, created to ensure nonpartisanship among federal workers, DHS employees are not always held accountable for exercising “free speech” that would violate that law. The Three Percenters claim that they’re protesting government tyranny. The roman numeral itself refers to a debunked claim that only 3% of Americans in the original 13 colonies took up arms against the British in the Revolutionary War.
What does it mean that an employee of the Department of — yes! — Homeland Security can openly and proudly promote a homegrown militia whose members have threatened and attacked American lawmakers and police? Sadly enough, this fits all too well an agency that national security expert Erik Dahl of the Costs of War Project recently described as looking the other way in the face of rising far-right extremism. That includes anti-government, white-supremacist, and anti-Semitic groups, armed and otherwise. Such right-wing militias and extremist outfits, as Dahl makes clear, have killed an increasing number of people in this country since the 9/11 attacks, significantly more than groups inspired by foreign Islamist organizations like al-Qaeda. And yet, in both its public statements and policies, the domestic agency created after the 9/11 attacks to keep this country “secure” has consistently focused on the latter, while underestimating and often ignoring the former.
How U.S. Security Changed after 9/11
The Department of Homeland Security was quite literally a product of 9/11 and so was formed in a political climate of nearly unwavering support for anything Congress or the White House proposed to combat extremist violence. It officially arrived on the scene just weeks after the 9/11 attacks as the “Office of Homeland Security” when President George W. Bush appointed former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge as its first director. By 2002, now a “department,” it would bring together 22 different government agencies, including the Transportation and Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Its mission, as stated in a proposal by President Bush, was to “protect our homeland… against invisible enemies that can strike with a wide variety of weapons.” In the end, that new department would represent the largest reorganization of government since World War II. Though few here think of it that way, it would prove to be a second Pentagon and, over the years, would be funded in a similarly profligate fashion.
Under such circumstances, you won’t be surprised to learn that its creation also led to a striking amount of redundancy in the national security establishment. In 2004, Congress created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to provide the president with an overview of all intelligence efforts. According to Dahl, the director of national intelligence and the organizations he or she oversees are supposed to stand on the front lines of combating violent attacks on U.S. soil. Law enforcement groups like the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (under the FBI) have, in fact, thwarted the largest number of potential terrorist attacks since 9/11 and, at the moment, seem to be focused on the most significant threats to this country, which are all too internal. For example, a January 2022 joint statement by senior FBI and Justice Department officials warned that “the threat posed by domestic violent extremism and hate crimes is on the rise” and that FBI investigations of suspected domestic violent extremists have more than doubled since the spring of 2020.
In February 2020, even Christopher Wray, President Trump’s FBI director, testified before the House Judiciary Committee that violent extremists targeting people based on their race or ethnicity “were the primary source of ideologically-motivated lethal incidents and violence in 2018 and 2019, and have been considered the most lethal of all domestic extremist movements since 2001.” Of the 16 (unsuccessful) terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in 2020, 14 were prevented by police or most often FBI agents or those from Joint Terrorism Task Forces. For example, in March 2020, the FBI shot and killed a man in Missouri while attempting to arrest him. He was under investigation for planning to bomb a hospital to protest his city’s Covid-19 lockdown measures.
To be sure, there have also been threats from foreign terrorist organizations and those who act at their behest. Take, for example, the December 6, 2019, attack of a Saudi-born military trainee directed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He managed to kill three sailors at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida. According to Dahl, since 9/11, there have been 146 thwarted attacks planned by foreign terrorist groups or those inspired by them here. The vast majority were prevented by law enforcement sting operations or tips from the public.
Meanwhile, DHS is often not focused on threats of violence at all, but on responding to allegations of mistreatment by its own officers toward people in their custody or toward one another. A list of 2019 and 2020 congressional testimony by DHS officials typically included topics like monitoring reports on terrible conditions in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities, on the mistreatment and deaths of immigrant children in Customs and Border Patrol custody, or on harassment and bullying within the Coast Guard.
When it came to terrorism, prior to the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, DHS officials were primarily focused on their roles as gatekeepers for those entering or traveling within the U.S. In testimony they gave, there was no mention at all about the rise of domestic extremists and the risk they might pose to American lives and property. Typically, in public remarks at American University in March 2019, then DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen stated that Islamist militants pose the primary terrorist threat to the U.S.
On January 5, the day before the Capitol uprising, DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis published a summary account that oh-so-presciently stated: “Nothing significant to report.” Never mind that law enforcement figures had recently been sharing numerous tips on the subject of domestic terrorism, including from soon-to-be protesters exchanging maps of the Capitol’s interior on social media.
While some amount of redundancy is certainly to be expected in government, the level introduced by the Department of Homeland Security should raise issues that go beyond the logistical problem of too many cooks in the kitchen. After all, what does it say about a department created to make this country more secure that just about all those “cooks” focus on only one potential danger, while ignoring the main and all-too-obvious “security” threat to American lives right now?
It’s simple really. Though the word in its name is “homeland,” as in “domestic,” its focus is almost solely on those who come from outside our borders, both jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS that might indeed plot to launch or at least promote terror attacks here and — a particular emphasis of the Trump years — immigrants illegally crossing our border with Mexico.
Even more sinister, when it comes to redundancy, our government now has a second armed entity that can direct its force in an arbitrary way. Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks, the forever-war and new-Cold-War-focused Pentagon is, of course, staggeringly over-funded, even if its rank and file are — take my word for it as a military spouse — ever more depleted from our endless wars abroad, the pandemic ravaging this country, and relentless training. Meanwhile, since 9/11, we’ve overfunded what quickly became a second Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, capable of focusing on whatever it considers to be most politically expedient.
During the Trump administration, DHS suppressed those populations the president and his advisers deemed the greatest threats to this country, even if that meant young children whose families were seized at the southern border. No less chillingly, during the Trump presidency, DHS Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli acknowledged that the agency had sent its employees to monitor and suppress protests in Portland, Oregon, against the police killing of George Floyd. DHS officers began patrolling that city’s streets in unmarked vehicles and detaining protesters allegedly without even telling them why in order, according to Cuccinelli, to “move them to a safe location for questioning.” However, a November 2020 report issued by the DHS’s own inspector general concluded that the people deployed to Portland had no authority (or training) to act as law enforcement officers and had engaged in unconstitutional, violent attacks on protesters, journalists, members of watchdog groups, and bystanders.
All of this should be a reminder of what life in another Trump (or Trumpist) presidency in these (dis)United States could be like for a DHS that already ignores the real potential terrorists in this country. Count on one thing: any regard for civil liberties and human rights would undoubtedly go out the window.
If such a president were to use the bully pulpit to denigrate anyone who disagreed with him or whose way of life differed from his own, then imagine what a Department of Homeland Security that, even now, ignores the deepest security threat to this country, might be like. In a New Yorker article in 2020, journalist Masha Gessen pointed out that “homeland” was, from the start, “an anxious, combative word: it denotes a place under assault, in need of aggressive defense from shape-shifting dangers.” She argued that its sudden use by our government, post-9/11, suggested a move from defending ourselves against other militaries towards defending ourselves against individuals who might, in the end, threaten a leader’s power. And this, Gessen pointed out, is the premise on which secret police forces are built.
Before entering the mental-health field, I spent years living and working as an activist in Russia. Its Federal Security Service, or FSB, has used intimidation, detention without charge, and extra-judicial execution to show everyone from opposition figures to feminist rock bands the might of President Vladimir Putin. Its focus has been on keeping people from challenging the status quo of a patriarchal nation expected to show unquestioning loyalty to its strongman ruler.
The terror that many Russians feel about their internal police is, of course, rooted in history. The FSB’s predecessor, the Soviet Union’s notorious KGB, wielded similar violence against many whose free expression was deemed to threaten state power. Most friends and acquaintances of mine in Russia have relatives in older generations who were taken away, never to be seen again, for reasons as subjective as publishing a poem or talking to the wrong neighbor on the street.
As I reflect on how far state oppression can go, I only hope that the U.S. will never again see a leader who allows federal power to be used in such an arbitrary way. Yet, thanks in part to the Department of Homeland Security, I’m all too aware that this country is remarkably well set up for just such a figure.
It should be baffling to us all that the organization tasked with protecting our homeland was unable to avert the most threatening violent attack on our democratically elected government since Confederate troops advanced on Washington, late in the Civil War.
A friend and Park Police officer who was stationed at the Capitol on January 6th recalls being more scared than she had ever been in her 20 years of service. She and some 150 colleagues who specialize in crowd control around national infrastructure lacked a memorandum of understanding with the Capitol Police that would have allowed them to help defend Congress. She said that, as far as she could see, January 6th was a failure of leadership more than anything else because capable people had not been given permission to act.
If we and our lawmakers don’t hold the Department of Homeland Security — a creation of this country’s disastrous war on terror — to account for its actions (or lack of them) and question not just what it does but why it even exists, then I fear for our future. After all, what 9/11 really left us with was not just those destroyed towers in New York and a damaged Pentagon, but our own second Pentagon, a “defense” department capable of being aimed in the worst way possible at the American people. The problem is that the enemy of the future for DHS may very well be the American people — and not just the terrorists among us either.
And, in truth, none of us should be surprised. After all, the original proposal for that agency called for the targeting of invisible enemies capable of striking the “homeland.” In other words, the enemy could be anyone. It could, in fact, be the Department of Homeland Security. And that should concern us all.
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