On Tuesday, just days after a white supremacist gunned down 11 people at a synagogue and just a week after a terrorist mailed more than a dozen bombs to critics of the president, the Department of Homeland Security—created after 9/11 to protect the United States from terrorism—had a conference call. Attendees were on the department’s Homeland Security Advisory Council, a group of more than two dozen former government officials and insiders who help guide the Department on its thorniest challenges.
The topic: a group of Central American migrants slowly wending their way through Mexico in hopes of seeking asylum in the United States. Some participants were flummoxed: In the face of the most lethal anti-semitic terror attack in American history, was DHS really focused, exclusively, on migrants?
“In the world of homeland security, the common practice is to focus on those threats that present the greatest risk,” said John Cohen, a Rutgers professor and former senior official in the Department of Homeland Security focused on counterterror. “So it’s disconcerting that in a call with national law enforcement and homeland security experts, the focus would be on the caravan versus the increasing number of mass casualty attacks the country’s experiencing, including by white extremists.”
It underscored a weakness at the center of U.S. national security. As the country reels from the latest spate of white supremacist murder, nine law-enforcement veterans say that combating violent white supremacy simply isn’t a top focus for the federal agencies mandated to protect Americans from terrorism.
Five veterans of the Department of Homeland Security told The Daily Beast that DHS, created in the wake of al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, has long considered far-right radicalism to be the FBI’s purview. But the FBI has competing priorities. Four bureau veterans interviewed by The Daily Beast gave a range of responses, spanning from either considering it important but less so than fighting jihadist terror to, in the words of one retiree, “the lowest priority.” (The FBI, for its part, insisted to The Daily Beast that its “top priority remains protecting the United States from terrorist attacks, both international and domestic.”)
Under Donald Trump’s presidency, experts say the threat has only grown–and without commensurate efforts to mitigate it. DHS gutted an interagency task force that represents the only federal effort at preventing radicalization for any form of terrorism. White supremacy was among its targets. “What we’ve lost here is the creation of infrastructure to prevent the threats of the future,” said George Selim, a senior Department of Homeland Security official who ran the task force before his retirement in summer 2017.
“Am I frustrated? Yeah,” said Cohen, the former DHS senior official. “We know what the problem is, but every time there’s another one of these attacks all we hear is, ‘Oh, this is shocking, this is horrible, our prayers are with the people, who would have imagined this ever would have happened?’ I think that was the exact quote from the president—‘This was unimaginable.’ No, it’s very imaginable because it’s happening on a regular basis in this country. We’re just not doing enough to stop it.”
Since assuming office in December of 2017, Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen mentioned white supremacist terror just four times in public statements—three in response to prodding from Democratic lawmakers asking her to both condemn and prioritize the threat from it. By contrast, she has mentioned Islamist terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda in public over 16 times as Homeland Security Secretary. Nielsen tweeted six times about migrant caravans; she has never mentioned the far-right terror threat on Twitter.
Additionally, an interagency entity led by DHS and the Bureau and designed specifically to help collect tips to prevent attacks like the one in Pittsburgh is deeply understaffed, and only got a director several months ago, according to a law enforcement official who works closely with the office.
And the White House isn’t helping, according to a former intelligence official.
“It’s not even an issue that you bring up at the White House because right now, when it comes to identifying threats facing the country, if it doesn’t support the agenda to reduce or restrict immigration, then it’s not even a topic to be discussed,” he said. The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment.
As white supremacists consider themselves emboldened, from Charlottesville to last week’s attempted pipe-bomb assassinations to the Tree of Life Synagogue, and the internet provides no shortage of ready-made radicalization ammo, the administration’s response is to consider this a problem for the FBI to solve after white supremacists kill, maim, and terrorize.
Knowledgeable former FBI agents say that confronting white supremacy isn’t remotely as big a concern as threats like jihadist terrorism.
“White supremacy is the lowest priority,” said a retired FBI agent with direct knowledge of terrorism investigations. “I would say the threshold to initiate an investigation is much higher for subjects of white supremacy investigations than it is for a Muslim, frankly.” The ex-agent said the problem precedes Trump.
Frank Figliuzzi, the Bureau’s former Assistant Director for Counterintelligence, made the argument that federal laws on terrorism result in a higher focus on attacks from organizations based overseas, and contended that the FBI focuses more on international violent jihadist terrorism than white supremacist groups based in the United States because of civil liberties concerns. (The Bureau’s record on civil liberties has long drawn criticism; broad swaths of the Muslim-American community have been under mass surveillance regimes since 9/11, and for years, FBI staff were trained that “mainstream” Muslims were “violent” and “radical.”)
“The rules are much harder—but they should be—to open a case on a white supremacist group,” Figliuzzi continued. “By definition, a white supremacist may not be a violent actor; by definition, a jihadist is a violent actor.”
“A white supremacist group is by definition a group that thinks whites are better,” Figliuzzi added. “Ok. Where’s the federal law there? If I’m heading a field office, which I have, I’m not putting resources on the thought police; I’m putting resources on somebody who says ‘I’m going to go to heaven if I blow up this building’ and is advocating violence.”
Of course, many white supremacist groups also advocate violence. And Figliuzzi’s claim that federal terrorism laws require a focus on organizations with a foreign connection is sharply disputed by national-security and civil-liberties attorneys.
It wasn’t always like this.
In 1964, after the murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the FBI, pushed by Lyndon Johnson, created an operation codenamed White Hate to disrupt the Ku Klux Klan. It lasted seven years, even as the bureau simultaneously suppressed black-liberation and leftist movements. “The FBI’s infiltration of the Klan proved better than the Klan’s infiltration of state and local law enforcement agencies,” observed historian Tim Weiner.
As an FBI special agent in the '90s, Mike German went undercover to break up and arrest white supremacist cells. (His career formed the basis of a 2016 movie, Imperium, with Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe playing a character based on German.) By the time he left the bureau in June 2004, the shadow of 9/11, combined with a host of persistent internal bureaucratic pressures, had relegated the FBI’s investigations of white-supremacist groups to the margins.
“I’m dismayed because we had a pretty good handle on what was happening in the '90s, and I’m not sure why we lost that,” German said. “The FBI remains a very white organization, and white people tend not to worry about white supremacist violence as much as other people.”
Islamist violence in the U.S. comes in spikes: San Bernardino, Omar Mateen’s killing spree at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and, of course the 9/11 attacks that stole the lives of nearly 3,000 people. But throughout American history, white supremacist terrorism has consistently killed, maimed, and oppressed vastly more Americans, to relatively inconsistent outrage. Unlike Islamism, white supremacy’s roots run deep in American culture, and it has apologists at the highest levels of American politics. These fundamental discrepancies persist as the government’s intelligence and law enforcement apparatus focuses instead on jihadist violence–a neglectful atmosphere whose deadly consequences appear on display from Charlottesville to Tree of Life.
What a 2017 Government Accountability Office report called “far-right extremism” is responsible for 73 percent of the 85 lethal extremist incidents in the U.S. from the day after 9/11 through 2016, while Islamist extremist violence was responsible for 27 percent. Islamist violence during that period killed slightly more people—119 to white supremacy’s 106—because Mateen’s mass slaughter accounts for a whopping 41 percent of all post-9/11 domestic jihadist-inspired deaths.
The Department of Homeland Security was created after 9/11 to organize and coordinate domestic protection from terrorism. Yet multiple former DHS officials said the department considers combating white supremacist terrorism to be the FBI’s responsibility. While DHS’s office of intelligence and analysis does collect some rudimentary so-called “open source,” data on white supremacist threats, the effort pales compared to the resources devoted to other perceived dangers. Under Trump, said a former DHS official, “it seemed like there was a push away from domestic terrorism,” an umbrella term that includes white-extremist violence.
Starting in 2017 in DHS, Selim said, there “came greater priorities, such as immigration, and a complete lack of understanding by some of the new political appointees for what we had spent years building up.”
It built on a pattern of avoidance established in the Obama administration.
Several former DHS officials cited a political firestorm in Congress after an intelligence analyst, Daryl Johnson, published a 2009 assessment warning of growing far-right violence. Those ex-officials considered Johnson’s assessment methodologically overbroad. But afterward, “DHS read the lesson more broadly than that,” said Margo Schlanger, who used to run DHS’s civil-rights office. “They seemed to draw the conclusion that we had better not talk about right-wing extremism.”
During its second term in office, the Obama administration began an initiative to prevent domestic radicalization before it inspired people to terrorism. Known as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), and run by Selim, it had no shortage of critics. Right-wingers hated its agnosticism toward any particular source of ideological extremism and wanted it to target Muslims–punitively. Muslim communities felt that CVE was a euphemistic way for the government to do exactly that. The program’s advocates noted that even at its high point, in the fiscal 2016 budget, Congress devoted only $50 million for it, a relative pittance.
Selim, who now works for the Anti-Defamation League, defends it by saying there was no other program to build local community resilience against growing extremism of any form. “It was the primary mechanism for which the federal government dealt with prevention. Our law enforcement partners across the country need more tools than just arrest authority,” Selim said, and without it, the only solution is police work after a deadly attack. And that, he said, is where the Trump administration is now.
During Selim’s tenure at DHS, the CVE Task Force included the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Justice Department, along with contributions from the Pentagon, Health and Human Services, and the Department of Education. Over a dozen interagency staff on the task force, plus over a dozen full-time DHS staff and 25 contractors, worked out of the same office at DHS, in what Selim described as constant communication. As the Obama administration wound down, DHS leadership sought to lock the CVE task force into place through additional congressional funding and interagency memoranda.
As Selim first told the Atlantic this week, the Trump administration didn’t see its value. “The administration has failed to request further funds for grants, staffing, or other program resources,” Selim said. Its parent office at DHS, the Office of Community Partnerships, has had its budget slashed from $21.5 million to less than $3 million. Members of the task force saw the writing on the wall, Selim said: “All the agencies pulled their staff and DHS has attempted to keep this group, on paper, running, but my understanding is that the task force is a virtual group that only meets by phone conference once a week, maybe.”
That leaves law enforcement to pick up the slack of combating an increasingly assertive white supremacist movement. But in practice, FBI veterans say, the bureau sends signals that white supremacy isn’t a top priority.
“Your highest performing agents aren’t usually assigned to white supremacy investigations,” said the retired agent. “We initiate a CT [counterterrorism] investigation and the subject is some Iraqi refugee, and there’s many steps headquarters will pound you on before you’re able to close the case. It’s not the same type of urgency with white supremacy investigations.”
The administration’s recently unveiled counterterrorism strategy underscored that lack of emphasis. The document’s focus is on jihadist extremism, adding “lastly” that the U.S. “has long faced a persistent security threat from domestic terrorists who are not motivated by a radical Islamist ideology but are instead motivated by other forms of violent extremism, such as racially motivated extremism, animal rights extremism, environmental extremism, sovereign citizen extremism, and militia extremism.” It proceeded to note, almost in passing, that such “domestic terrorism in the United States is on the rise.”
As of September, the Trump administration had prosecuted 63 domestic terrorism cases in the current fiscal year, down about 9 percent from 2017 and even further from the over 100 cases in Obama’s last year, according to data gathered by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). Prosecutions of both domestic and international terrorism are down in the first two years of the Trump administration. TRAC data show international terrorism prosecutions have varied both across and within administrations, but the decline in focus on domestic terrorism prosecutions isn’t unique to Trump–it’s been going down for about a decade.
That said, federal prosecutors have charged a handful of prominent neo-Nazis and white supremacists. The Justice Department has charged white nationalists Robert Rundo, Robert Boman, Tyler Laube, and Aaron Eason for their alleged role in rioting during the 2017 alt-right Charlottesville, Virginia rally and charged James Fields Jr, who allegedly murdered Heather Heyer during the event, with violating federal hate crime laws. Federal prosecutors have also gone after Brandon Clint Russell, a member of the Atomwaffen Division neo-Nazi group whose members have carried out a string of murders and assaults across the country, on bomb-making charges.
On the prevention side, the federal government also draws criticism. John Sena heads the National Fusion Center Association, which represents fusion centers—hubs for gathering, analyzing, and sharing information about terror threats among law enforcement entities. Sena told The Daily Beast he’s worried about the National Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI). The initiative—designed to help people report terrorism threats, including threats from white supremacist terrorism—is chronically understaffed, he said, and only got a director a few months ago.
“It should be the most important program in our country, to identify behaviors related to terrorism,” Sena said. “They do not have adequate resources to accomplish the mission.”
A spokesperson for the FBI said the Bureau works hard to stop domestic terrorists of all stripes.
"The FBI's top priority remains protecting the United States from terrorist attacks, both international and domestic,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We are currently investigating approximately 1,000 domestic terrorism cases across the country. These domestic terrorism investigations focus on criminal activity of individuals, regardless of group membership, which appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce the civilian population or influence the policy of the government by intimidation or coercion.”
Spokespersons for the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
It comes at an ominous time. Selim said he saw evidence of white supremacy on the rise all throughout the Obama administration, a claim supported by the GAO. The ADL has documented a 60 percent rise in anti Semitic incidents in 2017. A Kentucky white supremacist is accused of murdering two black senior citizens at a supermarket, Vickie Lee Jones and Maurice Stallard, after he failed to shoot up a black church like Dylann Roof did in 2016 at Mother Emanuel in Charleston. Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee on Monday demanded their GOP majority counterparts hold hearings on what they called the “wave of domestic terrorism now gripping our nation.”
Mike German, the former FBI agent who infiltrated white supremacist groups, warned that white extremists would understand a lack of a crackdown on them as a tacit government endorsement.
“The lack of policing gives these violent groups the impression that their violence is sanctioned, and that makes them far more dangerous,” German said.
Figliuzzi agreed that the threat from these groups will only grow.
“We have got to get better at this,” he said. “It’s going to get worse. Why is it going to get worse? We have an administration that’s enabling, if not facilitating, these types of people and the speed bumps that used to be there are not there anymore and the access to social media just moves this stuff forward at the speed of light.”
—with additional reporting by Adam Rawnsley
Correction: This article previously stated there had been no discussion of the Pittsburgh attack on the DHS conference call.