Domestic Terror: How the GOP Ignored the Problem of 'Killer Vets'
July 27, 2016
Ben Wofford / Politico
While GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump is blaming Barack Obama for police shootings, the fact is that it was the Republicans who halted a federal study that sought to detect potential radicalization by veterans -- seven years ago.
The GOP Shut Down a Program That Might Have
Prevented the Mass Killings in Dallas and Baton Rouge
Ben Wofford / Politico
(July 24, 2016) -- During an agitated week in Cleveland, two themes echoed regularly through the Republican National Convention hall and drew thunderous, at times delirious applause: Support America's veterans. And support America's police. Thursday night, those themes intertwined in Donald Trump's declaration that he is the "law and order candidate" in this election.
"Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation," Trump said. Then he made the two threats one: "The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life."
But what if the acts of terrorism -- the killings of police officers -- are being perpetrated by veterans?
As the right-wing outrage machine would have it, the shootings of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge by US military veterans were the fault of President Obama. "How many law enforcement and people have to die because of a lack of leadership in our country?" Trump recently wrote in a Tweet.
But seven years ago, when a little-known division in the new president's Department of Homeland Security sought to explore the potential violence of returning veterans -- one that might have aided local law enforcement with intelligence in Dallas and Baton Rouge -- it was Congressional Republicans who succeeded in pushing to shut the program down.
The intelligence unit, called the Extremism and Radicalization Branch, undertook a sensitive mission when it was founded in the Bush administration in 2004: Studying and monitoring sub-sections of the population for potential signs of ideological and political radicalization.
The group's mandate allowed it to research radicalized groups without criminal cause -- a counterterrorism think-tank, of sorts, that circulated early warnings to state and local law enforcement.
But a prediction found in a 2009 report, titled "Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment," ignited the rage of conservative and veterans groups across the country.
The DHS study warned that returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, traumatized abroad and underserved at home, would pose a particular threat to law enforcement while those two wars scaled down, in part by being drawn to radicalized movements inside the country.
"We were looking at the precursors to terrorism, precursors to criminality, which we call radicalization," says Daryl Johnson, the unit's former chief. "If the unit was still functioning today, we would definitely be on top of what's going on -- issuing a threat advisory, talking to law enforcement about how there's a new emergence of violent groups."
Johnson's 2009 report, which was classified only for the eyes of law enforcement, leaked almost immediately, and became the first scandal, real or imagined, of the Obama presidency. It was also the moment when the political career of DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano abruptly ground to a halt.
"There was a backlash to it by the Republican establishment, as well as Fox News," says Johnson, who today works in private security consulting that focuses on domestic terrorism. "The day after that thing was leaked, all of our work stopped."
The events in Dallas and Baton Rouge that left eight police officers dead and ten wounded have rekindled the frustration felt by Johnson and others involved in the study.
Both shooters, Micah Johnson and Gavin Long, were former veterans who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan. They were also members of radical groups like the New Black Panther Party and an obscure group called the Moorish sovereign citizen movement, respectively.
According to current and former counterterrorism experts from various federal agencies, both acts of violence fell squarely within the purview of the DHS branch, which studied extremism across the political spectrum. The unit deployed at least one intelligence operative to monitor the Moorish nationals, perhaps the fastest growing branch of the so-called sovereign citizen movement.
Adherents believe they are descendants or African colonists and do not fall under the jurisdiction of US law. A 2014 report from the University of Maryland reports that police thought of the sovereign citizen movement as their No. 1 threat.
Though the numbers of non-military shooters in the country dwarf those of returned veterans, some of the most high-profile and deadliest shootings in recent years have been carried out by ex-military.
* the Umpqua College shooting in Oregon in 2015;
* the Navy Yard shooting in 2013;
* the Wisconsin Sikh Temple shooting in 2014; and
* the Fort Hood massacre in 2009.
(It's more difficult to quantify smaller events that don't meet the cutoff for a mass shooting -- a Memorial Day spree earlier this year left two dead, carried out by a former Marine). And before those incidents, the country endured the DC sniper, the slaughter of 169 people by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and the Texas shooting at Luby's restaurant in 1991, each orchestrated by a former veteran.
But after the DHS report appeared in April 2009, conservative groups swiftly mobilized. "To characterize men and women returning home after defending our country as potential terrorists is offensive and unacceptable," said John Boehner, joining a chorus of congressional Republicans.
Conservative media stoked the outrage, including blogger Michelle Malkin, who called the report "one of the most embarrassingly shoddy pieces of propaganda I'd ever read out of DHS."
Within days, Napolitano gave in -- apologizing to veterans and turning the lights off at the E&R division altogether. "They gave us thirty days, then they shut everything down," says Johnson.
The program's defenders and critics seem to agree that the federal bureaucracy simply avoided the issue after that. No one with whom I spoke could identify a replacement agency, and in 2011, the department acknowledged it had scaled back its examinations of non-Islamic related terrorism.
"Is there some kind of agency or working group focusing on tracking returning military veterans? Not that I know of, not at all," says Mark Potok, a senior analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "And I think probably if somebody tried to do that it would be politically explosive."
"Very many veterans are very vulnerable in a lot of ways," he adds. "I think there's a real risk."
The risk is one difficult to speak about -- the same political thicket that claimed E&R: When can vulnerability to PTSD turn into something dangerous when it comes to our returning military veterans? And what happens when a country unaware of the traumas of the soldiers who fought for it attempts to reintegrate well trained killers into a civil society awash in guns?
Military veterans don't appear overrepresented in prisons, but they do for violent crimes. One might think the issue would therefore attract greater study; following the Vietnam War, scholars made several large scale efforts to examine the reintegration of draftees, an undertaking that largely lacked data.
Not until last year, fourteen years into our nebulous new era of war, had some of the first comprehensive data begun to trickle in. It arrived via a report by King's College in London last year, which found a link between military service in Iraq and Afghanistan and violent tendencies upon returning home.
The US Army, too, has quietly expressed interest in the same connection, says Dr. Ronald C. Kessler, a professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School. Kessler and a team of co-researchers were eventually asked to lead a study, perhaps the largest to analyze comprehensive data from a wide array of military records on file for 975,000 soldiers between 2004 and 2009.
Part of the Army STARRS program (Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers), the report's first major release of findings this year suggests a series of 24 risk factors that can predict a soldier's proneness to violent tendencies during their service. But the most interesting component of the experiment -- the same trap door which ensnared Extremism and Radicalization -- will follow the soldiers as they reintegrate into society.
"We'll be following them through 2020, at least," Kessler tells me. "We're trying to see if there are things we could have known on the very first day that would help us predict problems." Problems, perhaps, like Micah Johnson and Gavin Long.
Some radicalization researchers still contend that Extremism and Radicalization provided indispensable intelligence.
"Very many veterans are very vulnerable in a lot of ways. Very often they're young men, coming back quiet adrift and coming out of a world of extreme damage. They can have troubled adjustments," Potok says. "At the same time, they have a very particular kind of paramilitary and military skills."
The result, he said, is that while returning veterans aren't statistically more likely to join extremist movements, the movements themselves often seek them out.
Such was the case of the Moorish nationals, said one federal counterterrorism analyst, who engaged closely and frequently with the DHS branch before its dissolution. "We had a pretty good handle on the Moorish threat," said the analyst, speaking on the condition of anonymity and describing the group the claimed the lives of three Baton Rouge police officers last week.
In 2009, the branch "had reporting of Moorish groups up-armoring vehicles and, on an ad hoc basis, practicing how to roll up behind law enforcement when their members were [pulled over]" for traffic stops. This analyst added, "We also saw the Moors creating their own concealed handgun permits for firearms," a phenomenon which E&R quickly worked to disseminate to law enforcement, including in Dallas.
But not everyone was sorry to see E&R dissolve, including Mike German, a former special agent in the FBI who focused on counterterrorism.
"They were asking for information on a broad surveillance program targeting returning veterans. There should some accountability for that," says German, who has also worked for the American Civil Liberties Union and is now at the Brennan Center for Justice in Washington.
"Any particular targeting of returning US war veterans seems entirely inappropriate. The last thing you want to do is, you know, compound the burden, by treating people who have served honorably and gone to war as suspect for future violence."
German, along with the others, argues that the FBI's in-house counterterrorism resources were more than sufficient to cover the gap lost by the E&R program, which was small -- less than a dozen members. In recent years, the FBI has opened up investigations into current military personnel, and issued a report in 2011 detailing the sovereign citizen threat.
But others, both in and out of the Extremism and Radicalization branch, suggested that the long-term resources to gather intelligence and radical trends disconnected from an individual investigation is what made DHS valuable.
Last June, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota authored a letter to President Obama, requesting the reinstatement of the Extremism and Radicalization Branch. The letter, co-signed with 20 Democratic colleagues, came in the wake of the Charleston Church shooting, orchestrated by the white nationalist Dylan Roof.
"The problem goes beyond a skewed allocation of resources," Ellison said. "When efforts are made to address right-wing extremism, they are often met with significant political backlash." The request, after some brief press attention, quickly faded from view.
In the debate over the DHS branch, one name looms largest for both sides. Ever since Timothy McVeigh, an Army infantryman who served in the Persian Gulf War, set off a homemade nitrogen bomb in Oklahoma City, both the military and the federal security apparatus have struggled to reconcile national security priorities on the issue of domestic terrorism and the threat posed by servicemen.
But critics of the DHS program argued that McVeigh was a very rare case. "To continue to use McVeigh as an example of the stereotypical `disgruntled military veteran' is as unfair as using Osama bin Laden as the sole example of Islam," wrote the head of the American Legion, David Rehbein, during the scandal. The American Legion's statement, in the end, became the tipping point for Napolitano's apology.
The 2009 report offers another insight into a longstanding debate in the counterterrorism world: How agencies will calibrate the line between foreign threats and domestic. To German, the E&R program -- and a similar FBI initiative from the time, Operation Vigilant Eagle, investigating returning veterans prone to violence -- illustrated arrogant overreach by the federal government, akin to the same terror-fighting philosophy that produced the PATRIOT Act.
The analogy borders on the absurd to the advocates of the DHS branch, a mere drop in the sea of mass surveillance, they say. "It pales in comparison," Johnson laughs. "You measure the number of analysts looking at domestic terrorism threats in the dozens. ISIS and Al Qaeda [analysts]? Thousands."
A certain dose of xenophobia played into the issue as well. "A superior [at DHS] literally said, 'It's open season on Muslims. We shouldn't be looking at real Americans,'" recalls the DHS analyst working with E&R. "I thought, I didn't know Tim McVeigh was a 'real American' in your eyes. But okay."
The subtext -- that which separates brown terror from white -- was not absent last week, nor at the Republican Convention. "Watch out Obama," Joe Walsh, a former Illinois Congressman and talk radio host, tweeted after the attacks on police last week. "Real America is coming after you."
The polarization of intelligence -- a trend that the closing of the branch foreshadowed -- is an artifact of a divided country, as Trump's speech last night to 'real Americans' and Ellison's letter to frustrated liberals ought to make clear.
But the two sides do not bear equal responsibility; the Republican Party's descendant into strong-man populism, as Trump's condemnation of the FBI makes clear, was occasioned by a years-long attack on neutral institutions, the vanguard of the liberal constitutional order.
DHS in 2009, then, was simply prelude for the ATF in 2011, the State department in 2012, the IRS in 2013.
Trump's candidacy suggests the acrid divide in politicizing our terrorists will get worse before it gets better. What would it mean, I asked the federal counterterrorism analyst, if America's countervailing political tribes could only blame the other for domestic terrorism?
"Things are already so charged right now -- would we see something equally heinous?" he told me. "We'd be no more successful finding Tim McVeigh than we were 20 years ago."
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