Did Law Enforcement Overlook The Threat Of Far-Right Extremism?

23 hours ago
Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Last month, in the span of just a few days, the Tree of Life synagogue was attacked. Several critics of the President received pipe bombs in the mail. And a man, after unsuccessfully trying to break into a black church, was arrested for shooting to death two African-Americans at a supermarket in Kentucky. Now the headline of a New York Times Magazine article warns, U.S. law enforcement failed to see the threat of white nationalism, and now they don't know how to stop it. The article is about how domestic counter-terrorism strategy has ignored the rising danger of far-right domestic extremism and how that has enabled the movement to grow and become more dangerous.

The article was written by my guest, Janet Reitman, who is a contributing writer to the magazine and a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. She's working on a book about the rise of the far-right in post-9/11 America. Her new article will be published in The New York Times Magazine this Sunday. It's already on the Times website.

Janet Reitman, welcome to FRESH AIR. You write that for two decades, domestic counterterrorism strategy has ignored the rising danger of far-right extremism, and you illustrate that with several points. But one of them is with Lieutenant Dan Stout, who was preparing for a Unite the Right rally in Gainesville, Fla., and had seen what happened in Charlottesville. And he knew next to nothing about the "alt-right" or white nationalism, so he tried to find what the latest intelligence was on white nationalism. And he ran into some obstacles. What problems did he face trying to find out more?

JANET REITMAN: He found a big zero, as he would put it. He found nothing. Dan Stout had never really heard of Richard Spencer, knew almost nothing about his "alt-right" movement, knew very little of anything about this opposition to the "alt-right" movement. You know, this would be the antifascist left. And so when he found out that Richard Spencer was coming to Gainesville, this was going to be his first big public event after Charlottesville. And Stout was (laughter) completely terrified.

And so he began to try to do all kinds of research, and he couldn't find - all he could do was watch YouTube videos. There was nothing available to him from his - obviously his own police department didn't have anything. He called the state police. They didn't have much. There was no way they could access the social media or any kind of, like, chats that these guys were now engaging in because a lot of this stuff by this point was now encrypted, and, you know, they were in private channels. They were not just on open Facebook. He reached out to the FBI. They weren't very helpful. They were - had a kind of, well, whatever we have, we're not sharing it kind of (laughter) perspective.

GROSS: What about...

REITMAN: But...

GROSS: ...Homeland Security?

REITMAN: Homeland Security had produced - you know, Homeland Security produces these threat assessments, these kinds of reports. And they had done some on white supremacists over the years. But they were not - nothing - none of this is very specific, and so there was really nothing.

GROSS: So Lieutenant Stout was lucky in the sense that the Gainesville rally was kind of a fizzle because the protesters far overwhelmed the white nationalists who came. But it illustrates your larger point that he couldn't find information about who might be coming and what the threat might be. So whose job is it to be monitoring extremists on the far-right who do pose the threat of violence?

REITMAN: The joint terrorism task forces, the DHS-run fusion centers at the local level - they are able and should be able to at least track, pay attention to these events. That's the first, number one - pay attention to these events where there is repeated violence and they're public. And, two, take a look at who's engaging in the violence. And chances are most of those guys who are really engaging in violence are people who are violent. Many of them have criminal histories. They are in the system.

At that point, there are any number of law enforcement agencies that can do a little digging and can alert the next town that's planning - I mean, these guys announce their events quite some time in advance, so that's enough time for, you know, both local and state and federal law enforcement to look at who have been the more violent people within these groups. What have they done? Do they have any history of violence? Do they have criminal histories? Are they out on parole? And just monitor them. That is what does not seem to be getting done.

GROSS: So you're saying there isn't much - there aren't many resources being put toward far-right extremism. But if you compare the numbers of violent attacks from jihadis in the U.S., extremist Muslims, with the number of attacks from far-right extremists in the U.S. like white nationalists, how do the numbers compare?

REITMAN: The number of far-right extremist attacks and deaths related to far right extremism vastly, vastly outnumber the number of deaths connected to Islamic extremism. It's by - the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, has - the numbers from 2017 I believe were 71 percent of the cases of domestic extremist-related violence were committed by members of the far-right. Twenty-six percent were Islamic extremists. I mean, these numbers will vary depending on who's counting and how they're counting, but if you look at a survey of maybe five or six different groups that look at these numbers, the one conclusion you can draw is that the far-right is responsible for the majority of these incidents.

GROSS: You write after President Trump came into office that security analysts noted with alarm what seem to be a systematic erosion of the Department of Homeland Security's analytic and operational capabilities with regard to countering violent extremism. And you're referring there to violent extremism from the far-right - and that this began with the appointment of a new national security team. What were the features of this new national security team when President Trump came to the White House?

REITMAN: So Donald Trump was advised prior to being elected by - in terms of national security by a number of people who came from what we might call the Islamophobic fringe, including people like Frank Gaffney, who is a longtime peddler of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories in Washington. He's a former Reagan administration official. And when Trump came in, he brought with him people like - well, Steve Bannon embraced some of these ideas. You had Sebastian Gorka and his wife, Katharine Gorka, who had run this little think tank in Washington which was very much devoted to an anti-Islam perspective, anti-Jihad perspective.

This is - in some ways, there is an industry - an Islamophobia industry similar to the anti-immigration industry that grew up in D.C. over the years and that was always considered very fringy. And just like that, an anti-immigration group has made its way into the mainstream now. So has the Islamophobia. And so you had a number of different players who came into the administration in either an advisory capacity or actually - in the case of the Gorkas, they actually held jobs in the administration. Katharine Gorka still does hold a job at the Department of Homeland Security.

And they were just, you know, not interested in white supremacy in any regard. I mean, Sebastian Gorka said at one point that he didn't think this was an issue. There was no white supremacy-related terrorism. That was, like, a myth. It was only about jihad.

And so over the next several months after - during the transition and then in the early months of the administration, they just started to chip away at the very tiny, tiny efforts that had begun to be made to look at white supremacy. It was not - there was no robust effort within DHS to look at white supremacy.

GROSS: So you also report in 2017 at the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Intelligence and Analysis analysts who had been looking at domestic terrorism and coordinating with local law enforcement sharing information - they were reassigned as public affairs liaisons. Does it mean that it's going to be more difficult for cities to find out about potential threats from, for instance, rallies that are going to be held there and people coming in to do right-wing rallies?

REITMAN: Yeah, I think so. If there is not a lot of investigative work done on the part of, say, the FBI to pre-emptively warn cities about who might be coming to their community based on, you know, analysis of their own crime database - if that is not happening, then these cities will be caught unaware.

Now, what I think is really important to stress is that rallies like we saw in 2017 are not the way of the future. The way of the future are attacks like what we saw with one guy in a van sending - allegedly sending pipe bombs to 15 people or a guy who was promoting his anti-Semitism on a far-right platform for quite a long time finally taking it upon himself to get his AR-15-style assault rifle and a bunch of handguns and go and shoot up a temple. That's what we're going to start seeing more of. That's the future.

GROSS: What makes you say that?

REITMAN: That's very scary.

GROSS: What you makes you say that?

REITMAN: Because that is - my reporting on this kind of quote, unquote, "alt-right" movement is that they found Charlottesville and those big rallies that they were having to be in some ways counterproductive. They were great recruitment tools, but they didn't really do much for them. I mean, they wound up - some of these guys wound up with court cases. There were lots of internal divisions within the movement.

And I just - I think that they didn't see it as a particularly effective way to go. They have their own networks. They have their own media. They have their own websites. They have their own, you know, YouTube channels. They have meetups that they do. I mean, they have their own little - it's an alternate universe of people. They don't really need to convince the rest of us.

I mean, that's what's kind of scary - is there are a lot of people that, in some way or another, buy into these ideas. They may not all want to go shoot up a temple or send a pipe bomb or even go to a big rally, but they in some way or another kind of agree with some of these ideas that have been made palatable to them. And it's a large number of people. I mean, apparently there was a study that was done right after Charlottesville that basically said about 10 percent of the American population thinks some of the ideas of the "alt-right" are OK.

GROSS: But the people who are responsible for the attacks that you just mentioned seem like they're not leaders of the movement. They're, like, lone wolves who found the far-right through various websites. So in what sense are they the wave of the future? It's not like they're part of an organized cell that, you know, is taking some kind of orders from the top.

REITMAN: Yeah, the wave of the future - that wasn't...

GROSS: And also, my impression, too, is that people who are part of, like, the larger white national movement - they want to be heard. They want to be seen. They want people to feel and hear their voice and their power.

REITMAN: First of all, I think that the wave of the future are - quote, unquote, "lone wolf cells." They are one guy, a couple of people, who are, you know, self-radicalizing. This is a movement in many regards that is oriented around this principle of leaderless resistance, which is that it's not really about being an organized movement with a leadership. It's about being inspired by somebody like Donald Trump.

You know, there are a number of people who have emerged and have, you know, some kind of prominent voice that they've publicized through websites or through these kinds of rallies over the year or the past year. And their ideas and their writing and - that has proved to be inspiring to individuals. It's a self-reinforcing movement, and it's not hierarchical. It's in many ways a very horizontally-structured - just like the Internet itself, it's kind of a horizontal movement.

And that is I think what makes it very difficult for law enforcement - just to give them some credit, it's very hard to know. There's so many people out there who may hold some kind of racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-Islam, anti-immigrant point of view. And they will say that somewhere on Twitter, on a comment on a New York Times or Washington Post online piece. They may send a nasty text message. How do you know which one of those people is actually planning something? It's really hard to know.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Janet Reitman, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. Her new article in the magazine is titled "U.S. Law Enforcement Failed To See The Threat Of White Nationalism. Now They Don't Know How To Stop It." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Janet Reitman, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. Her new piece in the magazine, which is on the web - on The Times' website and will be published in the actual newspaper on Sunday, is called "U.S. Law Enforcement Failed To See The Threat Of White Nationalism. Now They Don't Know How To Stop It."

One of the things you write about is a report that some of our listeners might know about that came out in 2009 from the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Intelligence and Analysis. And this report issued a warning of a rise in right-wing extremism. The report was titled "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic And Political Climate Fueling Resurgence In Radicalization And Recruitment."

And the economic and political climate referred to in the report had to do with the fact that President Obama, a black man, was president and that the housing crisis and the financial crisis had left people with a lot of financial problems. And that also a lot of military people were returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and finding that they had few options, that the housing crisis was making their options and the financial crisis was making their options even worse and that they were feeling disenfranchised and left with - without what they needed.

So what happened to this report? Oh, another thing the report mentioned was that between October 2007 and March of 2008, Daryl Johnson, the author of the report - his unit documented the formation of 45 new antigovernment militia groups. So what happened to this report?

REITMAN: This went out to all of DHS' partners in law enforcement. And within a very short time - a couple of days - it was leaked to a right-wing radio host named Roger Hedgecock, who's, like - has a syndicated program. And it was posted on his website. And they saw this report as the Obama administration attacking people who had a "right-wing," quote, unquote, ideology. And it was very clearly noted that right-wing extremism included a number of groups that we would recognize - neo-Nazis, white supremacists, radical anti-abortion activists, things like that.

After this report was leaked, it went absolutely viral across right-wing - the - sort of the whole far-right and right-wing Internet. And they attacked this report as this political, biased, essential attack on conservatives. And within two months of that report being released, the DHS rescinded it. And Janet Napolitano, who was then DHS secretary, apologized to veterans groups who particularly took issue with this report.

GROSS: So the Obama administration withdrew the report from 2009.

REITMAN: Right.

GROSS: But what happened to the information in the report? Did the Obama administration take any action on the information?

REITMAN: So they did continue to look at domestic extremism. There was no dedicated far-right extremist team like what Johnson had set up. He had this tiny, little unit of analysts who spend all their time on these far-right websites. Like, that was dismantled, and those analysts either were transferred to other parts of I&A, of Intelligence and Analysis, that department, or they just left altogether.

What happened was the Boston bombing happened in 2013. And then Jeh Johnson came in as Obama's next DHS secretary. And he had about 3 1/2 years. And his entire focus now was on domestic extremism, what we called - what they called homegrown violent extremism which related directly to people inspired by sort of Islamic jihadist ideology that were committing acts in the United States. So you had the Boston bombers, and then you had these ISIS kids who were joining ISIS. Or they were launching, you know, ISIS-inspired attacks here. And that's what the focus of really every law enforcement body just - you know, across the board, that was their focus sort of from 2013, 2014 onwards.

GROSS: And I think one of the points of your article is that far-right extremists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis took advantage of the lack of attention they were getting from the federal government.

GROSS: Yes, absolutely. The Internet had exploded in a - as a social venue in ways that I don't think the federal government was particularly clued into or aware of. They didn't see - they were paying attention to it in some ways in terms of how ISIS was using it to recruit and sort of mobilize young people. They weren't really looking at the - at least as far as I've found, they really weren't looking at the far-right and seeing how they were using their spaces in that same regard. And they've just - they also just weren't taking seriously what was being said.

And that's, like - that gets to the core of actually in some ways who we are as a society. A society based around institutions that have built by and to benefit white people has a very hard time looking at itself and seeing language and offensive ideology as dangerous, whereas, you know, you could see, for example, a kid putting the black flag of jihad on his Twitter feed. That's actually almost an act of war. That's something that could earn you an investigation. You know, there were kids who were investigated by the federal government. And, you know, there were material support cases opened on kids based on what they - initially based on what they were talking about on their social media pages.

That - putting a Confederate flag on your Twitter feed wouldn't get a blink of an eye, you know? And so it's a really complicated issue of who we are as a society. What do we - how seriously do we take this imagery, this kind of speech? How seriously do we look at the ideology of white supremacy and go, this is actually dangerous to people? I think we're just coming to terms with that.

GROSS: Well, Janet Reitman, thank you so much for talking with us.

REITMAN: Thank you so much for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Janet Reitman's New York Times Magazine article titled "U.S. Law Enforcement Failed To See The Threat Of White Nationalism. And Now They Don't Know How To Stop It" (ph) will be published in the magazine Sunday. It's already on the website.

After a break, Sam Briger will talk with Juan Gabriel Vasquez, whose new novel is about political assassinations and conspiracy theories. And Ken Tucker will review the new album by Pistol Annies.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICKY FORD, ROLAND HANNA, REGGIE JOHNSON AND JIMMY KNEPPER'S "REINCARNATION OF A LOVEBIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.