Ten years ago, the Department of Homeland Security sent American law enforcement agencies an intelligence briefing warning of a rising threat of domestic rightwing extremism, including white supremacist terrorism.
The economic recession and the election of America’s first black president would create fertile ground for rightwing radicalization, the 2009 report concluded. Military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular, would be attractive targets for recruitment.
Republican politicians and conservative pundits reacted with outrage and demanded a retraction. The report was politically motivated and unfairly demonized conservative views, they argued. “Americans are not the enemy. The terrorists are,” the head of the American Legion, a veterans group, wrote.
The head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) publicly apologized. The small team of domestic terrorism analysts who had produced the report was disbanded, and analysts were reassigned to study Muslim extremism, according to Daryl Johnson, the career federal intelligence analyst who had lead the team. By the next year, Johnson says, he had been forced out of DHS altogether.
Since then, Johnson has watched a rising tide of white nationalist terror attacks around the world. On Tuesday, as federal officials announced that two deadly mass shootings within a single week were being investigated as domestic terrorism cases, he spoke to the Guardian about why the DHS’s own warning about rightwing terror was ignored, and what should be done to confront the threat of white nationalist violence.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Should the communities targeted by white nationalist violence – African Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, Hispanic Americans – feel confident that their government is doing enough to protect them?
I don’t think these communities have much confidence right now. And they shouldn’t have confidence, because for the past 10 years, our government has basically failed us on this issue.
Was the violence we saw this weekend avoidable, if the US government had made different political choices a decade ago?
If the message I sent out had been heeded, and people took it seriously, we would have had more resources. That could have tempered the growth of what we have seen over the past ten years. There would be fewer extremists, and fewer attacks, because by now, 10 years removed from the warning, we would have mature programs.
But the political fiasco surrounding the report created a chilling effect in the law enforcement and intelligence community. It indicated that this topic is radioactive and you better stay away from it. If you pursue it, there’s going to be hell to pay: that was the message. People did lose their jobs. Good analysts were harassed and retaliated against. People saw what happened to me and my team. They knew that if it happened to Daryl, the Eagle Scout Mormon goody-two-shoes, it could happen to them.
Are people in the intelligence community still afraid to focus on white supremacy today?
There’s been some new reporting recently about how the FBI is reluctant to talk about it. I think the fact that we’re seeing this threat globally now could lend some hope something will be done. This is an international threat, and if [white nationalists] are also connecting to other people in foreign lands, the government can do a little bit more. [Editor’s note: That’s because investigators’ tools and legal powers are more restricted in domestic terrorism cases than in cases with ties to a foreign organization.]
When you originally wrote the report about the risk of rightwing extremism, did you think it would be controversial?
No. This project started in January 2007, with a call from the Capitol police. They tipped us off that Barack Obama was going to announce his candidacy for president, and they wanted to know about threats from white supremacists against this black senator. We didn’t see any initially, but we kept it open for the duration of the whole campaign. Once Obama won the Democratic nomination, that’s when the threats started. We all knew a black man getting elected president of the United States, and him being a Democrat on top, was the worst nightmare for both anti-government extremists and white supremacists. I remember as a teenager, back in the 80s, discovering racist jokes and books in used bookstores, and I remember reading somewhere that, you know, “America has turned into a craphole, basically, when a black person occupies the White House. That would be the ultimate low point of America.” We all knew it would be a recruitment boom, and all these groups would get active and some would resort to violence. We worked on it for two years. I thought it was the best paper my office had ever put together.
“Rightwing extremism” is a counter-terrorism term. It’s been in the lexicon for fifty years or more. The FBI had released public documents for 25 years that had the term “rightwing extremism” and nobody had ever objected to that. I never thought that somebody would equate “rightwing extremism” with the Republican party or the Tea Party or anything like that.
If the term “rightwing extremism” had been used for decades without any complaint, what changed in 2009?
There was a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress. There was a massive loss at the polls for Republicans, and I think they were trying to grasp at anything they could use to try to persuade conservative Democrats to vote Republican in the next election.
The people who railed against your report claimed it was targeting conservatives for their beliefs. You identify as an independent now, but when you wrote the report, you were a longtime conservative Republican. What was the clear line, for you, between your own political views and the rightwing extremists that you were writing about?
I had always believed that you shouldn’t hurt anybody else, physically, emotionally. Treat people with respect. When I was a conservative Mormon, at the time of the report, I was against things like gay marriage. But I believed that every human being had a right to be safe and free and they shouldn’t be harmed for their beliefs. If I, as a conservative Mormon, third-generation Republican, can call out this threat for what it is, why are all the politicians so reluctant?
Why do you think the Republican Party doesn’t want to talk about rightwing terrorism and white supremacy?
Partly because they’re the ones who are arming Americans. No matter how many times you can try to blame the person for carrying out the act, they still have access to weapons that are meant for war.
And I also believe, going back to their campaign strategy for the 2010 midterms, there’s blood on their hands. They’re definitely fanning the flame and providing the fuel, and it’s all to win elections.
What was the strategy?
Their fundraising strategy was to generate fear and paranoia about having a black Democrat in the White House. They created all these memes to paint him as a Muslim, not a US citizen. All this crap.
How would you rate the Democratic party’s approach to white supremacist violence?
I would give them an A for effort, but not much has come out of that. The problem is, they’re caught between a rock and a hard place: they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If a Democrat makes an effort to crack down on white supremacists, they’re playing right into the extremist narrative. It’s going to take Republican leadership, because most of these people are Republicans, and they trust the Republican party.
What would it look like for Republicans to respond appropriately to this threat?
The first thing they need to start to do, when one of these mass shootings happens and it’s linked to anti-immigrant zealotry, or hatred of Muslims, is calling it out for what it is. By arguing “this persona is mentally ill” or “this person is a crazed gunman” or “this person has committed a hate crime”, you’re doing a disservice to the victims and their families and to the nation by not acknowledging it’s terrorism.
Once you acknowledge it, then we can start gathering data on it. There’s so much that needs to be done. We’ve rolled out all these programs worldwide to combat radical Islamic extremism. You counter-message. You go visit the mosque. You have suspicious activities reporting on people in your mosque who may be radicalized. Similar programs need to be rolled out that cover white nationalism. We need a new domestic terrorism law. You need to have outreach efforts to bring people out of the movement. There’s tons of things that can be done, from the grassroots family level.
What would be the signs that the US government’s approach to white nationalist terrorism is changing?
Changing in a positive direction? They acknowledge the threat and call it what it is. It’s going to take years to counter it, to put the genie back in the bottle. This movement has grown and mushroomed over a decade, and it’s festering.
What would be the signs that there’s change in the government’s approach, but in a negative direction?
That’s the way it’s headed right now. I don’t see this problem going away anytime soon. It’s getting worse. The changing demographics in America can’t be stopped and it will continue to feed the extremists who fear the United States is becoming brown and not white. And when you have a president mainstreaming your ideas, a president who seems to lend tacit support to you, it gives you a license to misbehave.