from Southern Poverty Law Center
While at DHS, Johnson and his team wrote the April 7, 2009 report, "Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment." The report, which was intended for law enforcement only, was quickly leaked and caused a firestorm among some on the political right who accused DHS of painting all kinds of conservatives as potential Timothy McVeighs. In fact, it had merely pointed out that some domestic extremists focused on single issues like immigration and abortion and also noted that extremists were interested in recruiting military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Its analysis of the causes of the surge of right-wing radicalism -- the election of the nation's first black president and the economy, among other things -- still seems completely accurate and is in line with similar findings by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
But DHS ultimately reacted to criticism from conservative columnists and groups like the American Legion by withdrawing the report. (Ironically, given the criticism of his report, Johnson describes himself as a registered Republican who "personifies conservativism.") In the months following the leak, Johnson says in the interview below, DHS gutted its domestic terrorism analysis unit.
Events in the immediate aftermath of DHS' suppression of its report seemed clearly to exonerate its conclusions. In late May 2009, abortion provider George Tiller was shot and killed by an anti-abortion fanatic -- just the kind of person the DHS report had warned of in one section. In June 2009, neo-Nazi James von Brunn killed a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., while trying to storm into the building. Many similar attacks and planned attacks by the radical right have followed, right up to the present day.
Since leaving DHS last year, Johnson has formed a company, DT Analytics, to consult and offer training on issues related to violent domestic extremism and homeland security. He also is writing a book that he hopes will set the record straight on what really happened at DHS as well as help state and local law enforcement officials better confront the continuing threat of domestic terrorism.
When did you become interested in domestic terrorism?
Way back in 1983, when I was only 14 years old. At the time, the white supremacist terrorist group the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, or CSA, was generating a lot of media attention. I was fascinated by CSA and a little bit scared by it too. It made me curious to understand why people would quit jobs, leave their families and move to remote Arkansas to start arming themselves for Armageddon. I even sent a letter in 1986 to then-Sen. John Warner [R-VA], as part of my Eagle Scout requirements, that talked about the increasing terrorist activity abroad and I wondered, "How much longer will it take until terrorism arrives in the United States?" In the letter, I wrote, "If terrorism does come to the United States, which I think it will shortly, it will either be started or contributed by the militia." Nine years later, Timothy McVeigh, who was affiliated with the militia movement, blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Ultimately, I turned that interest into a career.
How did your official work in this area begin?
When I was with the U.S. Army as a civilian intelligence analyst in the years after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, we had a lot of militia cases involving threats to the military in U.S. These groups were stealing military materials, recruiting U.S. soldiers, conducting surveillance of armories, and plotting to attack bases. They thought the "New World Order" was staging its troops on our bases and that the Federal government was creating citizen detention camps using the U.S. military. They also claimed alleged black helicopter sightings. I remember learning that the Republic of Texas had conducted surveillance of military installations in Texas, that another militia group in Michigan had stockpiled illegal weapons and plotted to attack military bases in Battle Creek, and then there was the Ft. Hood plot, too. [Editor's note: In 1997, two men, who were associated with the militia movement, were arrested. They had planned to attack Ft. Hood, near Killeen, Texas, and slaughter foreign troops which they wrongly believed were housed there, along with innocent civilians.]
What was your mission at DHS?
DHS's mission was identified in the 2002 Homeland Security Act. Part of the department's responsibilities includes identifying and assessing possible terrorist threats to the homeland and notifying law enforcement officers of those threats. We looked at extremist groups who had histories of violent activities, but who might not necessarily be doing anything right now. We also studied radicalization: the process of adopting an extremist belief system and showing a willingness to use or facilitate violence to change the world. We wanted to know how a law-abiding person becomes radicalized to the point of being willing to hurt people. No one else was doing this work from a uniquely domestic, non-Islamic perspective.
How did your unit work?
I was the senior intelligence analyst for the domestic terrorism unit. I oversaw five analysts who worked directly for me, and we had support from other analysts outside our unit. Each person had a different account--the white supremacist movement, militias and sovereign citizens, single-issue extremists, and so on. We also had anarchists and leftwing terrorists as topics. There was an analyst who supported us through alternative analysis--that's where you think about the future and try to figure out what domestic terrorism will look like down the road. Another analyst conducted most of our Internet research. Three of my staff members were considered subject-matter experts. Combined, we had 50 years of experience in analyzing domestic extremism.
What was it like day-to-day at DHS?
We were responsible for providing answers to state and local law enforcement agencies. They would submit questions, and we would help out, usually by telling them what is happening throughout the country, identifying emerging trends and explaining the history, organization structure, capability and activities of extremist groups. The fusion centers would send in information, and we'd analyze it and respond. We had a monthly newsletter, and we wrote several assessments and reference aids that provided background information on extremist groups who had violent histories. Most valuable, I think, were the dozens of presentations we gave to state and local law enforcement agencies each year. We often received positive feedback and letters of appreciation from our stakeholders.
How did your work with DHS differ from the FBI's?
The FBI is the lead agency on terrorism, so no one else in the federal government has the resources they have. They have a core cadre of agents and analysts in D.C. devoted to this issue. DHS complemented the FBI counterterrorism mission. The FBI is a law enforcement agency, so they have rules and legal parameters in which they must operate. DHS was not constrained by these same rules because we were part of the intelligence community. We had a different set of rules to abide by. At the time, we had more latitude to look at extremist groups who talked about violence or who had histories of conducting violent acts, although not currently engaged in violence. And we were an alternate and sometimes dissenting voice to the FBI. This is an important aspect of intelligence work, because it prevents "group think" and biased analytical judgments by a single agency.
Can you describe what led to the creation of the right-wing extremism report?
Back in 2005, we were worried about the ELF [Earth Liberation Front, a leftwing extremist group] and ALF [Animal Liberation Front] because of their sabotage and arson activities. But in 2007, we started seeing a shift as right-wing extremism was becoming revitalized. We still had analysts covering animal rights extremism and eco-terrorism, but we began spending more time focused on white supremacists and militias.
The report evolved in a complicated way. It began after a phone call from the U.S. Capitol police in January 2007. They wanted help with then-Sen. Barack Obama's announcement of his candidacy for president. We monitored the Internet for about a month or so looking for threats to Obama. We didn't see anything threat-related, but I started thinking, "What if the U.S. elects a black president? What impact will this have on extremism in this country?" It seemed pretty clear to me that it would lead to a radicalization and recruitment boom by white supremacists, militias and other right-wing extremists, because this is what they fear the most--a black president, the ultimate symbol of a minority population's integration into U.S. society.
When Obama looked as though he was going to win the nomination [in August 2008], we started an outline. Between April and October 2008, we were immersed in collecting data. My team was still writing a draft of the report when Janet Napolitano became the new DHS secretary in January 2009.
Three months into Obama's administration, Napolitano asked us four questions: Are we seeing a rise in domestic right-wing extremism? If so, is it related to the election of a black president? What are the chances of it escalating to violence? And what are we going to do about it?
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