2020-07-27 05:17:00 UTC
For weeks, President Donald Trump and top advisers like Attorney General
William Barr have sought to blame antifa for sporadic violence and rioting
during the ongoing Black Lives Matters protests. With little evidence,
Trump even threatened to label antifa, an amorphous left-wing movement
opposed to fascism, as a domestic terrorist organization.
But the presidents strategy of pinning blame on antifa in quick, broad
brushstrokes is undercut not only by constitutional hurdles and
conflicting evidence on the ground, but also by a sobering report from his
own intelligence officials that calls for an entirely revamped approach to
domestic extremism. The analysis from the National Counterterrorism
Center, which has not been previously reported, offers an unusually self-
critical view of the gaps and weaknesses in combating homegrown terror
threats, and it suggests that the focus needs to be on individual actors
who break the law, rather than groups.
The report raises troubling questions about the governments ability to
head off a major attack from extremists at home. In stark terms, it
depicts a system ill-equipped to deal with the rising threat of domestic
extremists because of splintered approaches by different agencies.
The report depicts a system ill-equipped to deal with the rising
threat of domestic extremists because of splintered approaches by
The report warned bluntly that there is no whole-of-government [domestic
terrorism] threat picture. Federal officials cannot even agree on what to
call violent extremists inside the United States, their efforts are
rarely integrated, and combating the potent threat is not a top
priority in some agencies, said the report, which grew out of a high-level
summit of government officials and outside experts last fall.
As a result, intelligence officials are hampered by a lack of analytic
research and formal threat assessments to draw on in their work, the
report said, and that gap in valuable intelligence in turn reinforces the
lack of policymaker prioritization.
The six-page report summarized the key takeaways from a highly unusual
two-day conference on domestic terrorism organized last September outside
Washington, D.C., by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, and
the Department of Homeland Security. It brought together more than 120
experts on the subject, including officials across the federal government,
as well as local law enforcement officers, academics, and private-sector
Joseph Maguire, who was then the acting director of national intelligence,
spoke to the group himself and deemed the event a call to action to
confront the growing domestic terror threat, according to the report.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence refused to comment on
the report, and a spokesperson declined to say what steps intelligence
officials had taken in response to the findings. The report from the
counterterrorism center, which is part of the DNIs office, is dated
January of this year and was posted online by the office in March.
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A number of the outside experts invited to participate the conference said
that the governments acknowledgement of shortcomings in identifying
domestic extremists was a significant step by an administration that had
shown little interest in the problem. But turnover and tumult among
Trumps intelligence advisers make it unclear what changes, if any, may
take place as a result of the findings.
Its true theres no whole-of-government approach, and that needs to
change, former Justice Department official Mary McCord, who gave a
presentation at the invitation-only conference, said in an interview. If
youre going to get serious about thwarting domestic terrorism plots,
youre going to have to use more tools than we do.
The findings come as intelligence officials have been grappling not only
with far-right violence connected to the ongoing Black Lives Matter
protests, but also with conflicting messages from Trump and his top
advisers about the real source of the violence.
Since the protests began, Trump has tried to cast blame on antifa and what
he called a lot of radical left, bad people for occasional bursts of
violence during what have been largely peaceful demonstrations. Beyond
threatening to designate antifa as a terrorist organization a move
constitutional scholars say would likely be illegal he went so far as to
fuel a baseless conspiracy theory about a 75-year-old Buffalo, New York,
protester badly hurt by police, accusing the injured man of being a covert
Rudy Giuliani, the presidents private counsel and personal adviser,
blamed antifa, Black Lives Matter, the communists, and their allies for
episodes of violence and destruction around the country in an appearance
last week on Fox News.
Rudy Giuliani blamed antifa, Black Lives Matter, the communists, and
their allies for episodes of violence and destruction around the country.
Barr, meanwhile, declared at the very start of the protests that the
violence instigated and carried out by antifa and other similar groups in
connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated
accordingly. He announced on Friday that he was creating a federal task
force to confront anti-government extremists engaged in indefensible acts
of violence designed to undermine public order. He again pointed the
finger at antifa, but this time, he also named a far-right group:
supporters of the so-called Boogaloo movement, a white extremist group
that envisions a coming civil war.
FILE - In this May 2, 2020, file photo, people, including those with the
boogaloo movement, demonstrate against business closures due to concern
about COVID-19, at the State House in Concord, N.H. It's a fringe movement
with roots in a online meme culture steeped in irony and dark humor. But
experts warn that the anti-government boogaloo movement has attracted a
dangerous element of far-right extremists. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)
People, including those with the Boogaloo movement, demonstrate against
business closures due to concern about Covid-19, at the State House in
Concord, N.H., on May 2, 2020.
Photo: Michael Dwyer/AP
But there is little evidence to back up Trump administration claims that
antifa is driving the violence. Instead, law enforcement officials on the
ground point mainly to the far-right groups principally the Boogaloo
Boys for stoking violence and rioting.
In Oakland, authorities accused an active-duty Air Force sergeant who
declared himself a Boogaloo of ambushing two federal security officers
near a protest, killing one and wounding the other. And in Las Vegas,
three men aligned with that same white extremist group all of them
military veterans were arrested at a protest and charged with plotting
to detonate Molotov cocktails and stoke violence among the crowds of
Even before the Black Lives Matters protests, a string of deadly attacks
against minorities by white supremacists including the rampage last
August at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, which killed 22 people, most of
them Latinos had prompted the FBI and DHS to elevate the threat posed by
domestic extremists. The agencies put them on a par with foreign-based
terrorist groups like the Islamic State and other Islamist extremists,
which have been the dominant focus of counterterrorism officials since the
September 11 attacks.
One of the most alarming far-right plots emerged just last week, and like
several earlier episodes, it involved an American soldier.
Armed Vigilantes Antagonizing Protesters Have Received a Warm Reception
Federal prosecutors said that a 22-year-old Army private from Kentucky
named Ethan Melzer aligned himself with a violent neo-Nazi group and sent
along sensitive military information about deployment schedules to
facilitate an attack on his own unit in Turkey. In private chat messages,
Meltzer told members of the neo-Nazi group, known as the RapeWaffen
Division or Order of the Nine Angles, that he wanted to inflict mass
casualties and start a new war, even if it meant he himself might be
killed, according to his indictment. The authorities said that Melzer
confessed after his arrest last month and declared himself to be a
traitor against the United States whose conduct was tantamount to
Investigators with the FBI and the military appear to have had a
confidential source within the neo-Nazi group whom they used to find out
about the plot as it was being hatched, according to an unsealed affidavit
in the case.
But the broad findings from the National Counterterrorism Center report
suggest that authorities could be left in the dark about other extremist
plots and unable to head them off without wide changes to the system.
Trump himself has shown little inclination to go after domestic
extremists, even before the recent racial unrest. In one of his most
notorious proclamations, he said there were very fine people on both
sides at the violent neo-Nazi demonstration in 2017 in Charlottesville,
Virginia, and after last years massacre of 49 Muslims at two New Zealand
mosques, he rejected the suggestion that white nationalists were a growing
global threat, characterizing them instead as a small group of people
that have very, very serious problems. At the same time, his
administration gutted funding for an Obama-era program called Countering
Violent Extremism, meant to head off the radicalization of Americans.
The latest accusations against Trump of fanning racial tensions came this
weekend, when he retweeted a video from Florida that included a supporter
yelling White Power! at protesters. The president later took down the
Given the administrations record, a lot of us were pleasantly surprised
that this conference was convened in the first place it was overdue,
said Brian Levin, who runs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism
at California State University in San Bernardino and helped lead a
discussion at the event. There was a message from the top saying, I get
But that message has now become muddled, Levin and other participants
said, after the Trump administration fired both Maguire, the acting
intelligence chief, and Russ Travers, the acting head of the
counterterrorism center, within weeks of each other earlier this year.
Trump was reportedly furious with Maguire and questioned his loyalty
for allowing an aide to give a classified congressional briefing about
Russian meddling in the 2020 election.
Darryl Johnson, a former senior analyst on far-right extremism at DHS,
said in an interview he was optimistic after taking part in the conference
that federal officials were determined to develop a more thorough approach
to domestic terrorism. But with the recent changeover among intelligence
officials, were back to square one, spinning our wheels, he said.
Johnson, who now runs his own threat-analysis firm, authored a report at
DHS in 2009 on the rising threat of right-wing extremism, but the Obama
administration retracted it after a fierce backlash from Republicans. He
was also involved in DHSs internal efforts to develop a common lexicon
to describe political extremists and their ideologies, but that, too, was
Johnson said it is clear to him that intelligence officials today are
still missing comprehensive and valuable data on violent extremists, even
as the threat has risen. So if youre not collecting data, he asked,
how can you have any kind of analysis of what the threat is?
When you increase the powers of federal agencies, it can boomerang
back and hit activists and marginalized groups, and it doesnt hit the
Legal conflicts have hindered the effort, as well.
For decades, federal prosecutors have commonly used terrorism laws on the
books to charge violent extremists in the United States connected to
Islamic or foreign terror organizations, but they have applied the
terrorism label much less often when it comes to domestic attacks
involving young white, American-born men rather than Muslims of Middle
The intelligence report alluded to the dual treatment, saying that the
governments criteria for publicly labeling attacks as domestic
terrorism is opaque and inconsistent. It said that the U.S. government
needs to find a way to increase public trust by being transparent with the
public about how [domestic terrorism] definitions are derived, defined,
Fusion centers in each state now bring together local and federal
officials to identify public safety and terrorism threats. But these types
of cooperative efforts remain fractured, with partners working at cross-
purposes, the report said, and it encouraged federal officials to work
more closely with local law enforcement agencies nationwide and with
private technology companies, which are emerging as the dominant funder
of research on violent extremism. One open-source tool that officials
highlighted was identifying locales with the greatest amount of internet
searches related to white supremacy.
Such tactics carry legal risks, however, because of free speech rights and
civil liberties safeguards. For instance, designating a group inside the
United States as a domestic terrorism organization as Trump threatened
to do with antifa could be perceived as government overreach and/or
unconstitutional, the report said.
The FBI, in particular, has a long history of improperly harassing and
spying on political opponents and activists under the guise of national
security, most notoriously against civil rights leader Martin Luther King
Jr. in the 1960s under then-Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Some officials at the conference argued for trying to expand current laws
to carve out a new criminal statute specific to domestic terrorism,
bringing more legal powers with it. But Heidi Beirich, a longtime
specialist on domestic extremism, argued at the meeting that while federal
officials should be focusing more resources on violent white supremacists,
new domestic terror laws are unnecessary and could trample on civil
When you increase the powers of federal agencies, it can boomerang back
and hit activists and marginalized groups, and it doesnt hit the intended
target, Beirich, who recently co-founded an advocacy group called the
Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said in an interview.
Beirich said the weaknesses that federal officials acknowledged regarding
domestic extremists could have been a turning point, but she now worries
that they will come to nothing because of a lack of political will.
The threat continues, and we remain with blinders on, Beirich said. The
next mass attack is virtually assured, and therell be nobody who saw it