The hysterical proclamations about a free speech crackdown from right-wing apologists like Tucker Carlson notwithstanding, President Biden’s “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism” appears to be largely a sane and careful approach to the problem, respectful of civil rights while recognizing that such terrorism can be a threat to those rights as well. It is not, however, a perfect plan.
Woven into its structure is a problematic approach, left over from the Trump administration, to setting law enforcement priorities in a way almost guaranteed to lock in place federal agencies’ longstanding failures in addressing far-right terrorism, thanks to a classification system that collapses all far-right and far-left extremists together into the same categories, erasing the significant differences in the threat levels. It’s a kind of bothsiderism for the FBI.
According to experts consulted by Daily Kos, the system of categorization for domestic terrorism devised by the FBI in 2017—one in which the category of “racially motivated violent extremists” includes both white supremacists and “Black Identity extremists,” and the category of “anti-government/anti-authority” extremists contains both far-right militias and far-left anarchists—remains in place both in the Biden strategy and elsewhere in the administration’s federal law enforcement agencies.
“It’s very problematic,” Michael German, a national security analyst for the Brennan Justice Center who recently testified before Congress on the subject, told Daily Kos. “I would have preferred to see the Strategy saying, ‘We’re going to rethink these categories and divide out groups that work together.’ Because it would make sense to put white supremacists with far-right militias. Not that there aren’t far-right militias that aren’t white supremacists, but they often act in league together, and recruit from each other’s ranks.”
There’s a lot in the Strategy to like, particularly how it emphasizes far-right violence as the primary threat. “Individuals subscribing to violent ideologies such as violent white supremacy, which are grounded in racial, ethnic, and religious hatred and the dehumanizing of portions of the American community, as well as violent anti–government ideologies, are responsible for a substantial portion of today’s domestic terrorism,” it says.
Confronting the problem, it goes on, will be a daunting and complex task:
That means tackling racism in America. It means protecting Americans from gun violence and mass murders. It means ensuring that we provide early intervention and appropriate care for those who pose a danger to themselves or others. It means ensuring that Americans receive the type of civics education that promotes tolerance and respect for all and investing in policies and programs that foster civic engagement and inspire a shared commitment to American democracy, all the while acknowledging when racism and bigotry have meant that the country fell short of living up to its founding principles.
These efforts speak to a broader priority: enhancing faith in government and addressing the extreme polarization, fueled by a crisis of disinformation and misinformation often channeled through social media platforms, which can tear Americans apart and lead some to violence. A hallmark of this democracy is that political change must be pursued through nonviolent means grounded in the principles upon which the United States was founded. Enhancing faith in American democracy demands accelerating work to contend with an information environment that challenges healthy democratic discourse. We will work toward finding ways to counter the influence and impact of dangerous conspiracy theories that can provide a gateway to terrorist violence.
The document also includes recognition of certain key realities that have lay dormant for decades, contributing to the rise of the radical right—while emphasizing that its primary purpose is to reduce violence: “The overarching goal of this Strategy is preventing, disrupting, and deterring that violence,” it says. “Pursuing that goal includes reducing the factors contributing to domestic terrorism. Those factors have multiple dimensions, including incitement to imminent violence online, some transnational linkages, and certain self–proclaimed private ‘militia’ activity that, to varying degrees, is prohibited by the laws of all 50 states.”
And it explicitly acknowledges that the far right poses the most dire threat: “Among that wide range of animating ideologies, racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (principally those who promote the superiority of the white race) and militia violent extremists are assessed as presenting the most persistent and lethal threats,” it reads.
But elsewhere, the Strategy shows a reliance on the FBI’s deeply flawed approach to categorizing domestic terrorist threats. Under the “Today’s Threat” section, it includes “anarchist violent extremists, who violently oppose all forms of capitalism, corporate globalization, and governing institutions, which they perceive as harmful to society” alongside “self–proclaimed ‘militias’ and militia violent extremists who take steps to violently resist government authority or facilitate the overthrow of the U.S. Government.”
This deeply flawed system of categorization has apparently become embedded within federal law enforcement into the Biden administration, indicated by a report filed in March by the Director of National Intelligence, titled “Domestic Violent Extremism Poses Heightened Threat in 2021.” It includes a graphical breakdown of the categories of “domestic violent extremists,” and shows five primary categories:
- “Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists,” who are described as “DVEs with ideological agendas derived from bias, often related to race or ethnicity, held by the actor against others, including a given population group.” This oversimplification lumps white supremacists and neo-Nazis together with “Black Identity Extremists.”
- “Animal Rights/Environmental Violent Extremists,” described as “DVEs seeking to mitigate perceived cruelty, harm, or exploitation of animals or perceived exploitation or destruction of natural resources and the environment.”
- “Abortion-Related Violent Extremists,” described as including both sides of the abortion debate: “DVEs with ideological agendas in support of pro-life or pro-choice beliefs.”
- “Anti-Government/Anti-Authority Violent Extremists,” which contains three subcategories: “Militia Violent Extremists” (“DVEs who take overt steps to violently resist or facilitate the overthrow of the U.S. Government”), “Anarchist Violent Extremists” (“DVEs who oppose all forms of capitalism, corporate globalization, and governing institutions, which are perceived as harmful to society”), and “Sovereign Citizen Violent Extremists,” who “believe they are immune from government authority and laws.”
- And a catch-all “All Other Domestic Terrorism Threats” category, which appears to include the not-insignificant Islamist-extremist component.
A familiarity with domestic terrorism statistics indicates how absurd this kind of categorization—which appears to be predicated on a belief that “both sides do it,” when in fact that is decidedly not the case—is in the context of real-world violence. One database I helped construct for Type Investigations and the Center for Investigative Reporting, for instance, found that far-right violence—including both white supremacists and far-right militias—occurs at more than twice the rate of any other form of terrorism. It’s also significantly more lethal.
Moreover, far-left categories barely appear on the radar, with only small numbers of animal rights and environmental terrorist acts with very low lethality appearing in the data, and the same with anarchist or antifascist groups. There were zero terrorist acts by “pro-choice” extremists, but a significant number of cases involving far-right anti-abortion extremists.
Those numbers reflect the reality that, during the Obama administration, law-enforcement officials significantly overemphasized the threat posed by Islamist extremists while ignoring the increasing numbers of far-right violent acts. During the Trump years, the blame shifted absurdly to antifascists and “Black Identity Extremists,” a category that the FBI appears largely to be pretending it does not still use.
“Historically, the FBI has deprioritized investigations of white supremacists and far-right militants within their domestic terrorism program, although they acknowledge that white supremacists and far-right militants kill far more people than other category of domestic terrorism,” German told Harvard Politics. “There is this disconnect where [the Justice Department] sees political agitation as more threatening than actual violence against communities that the existing system suppresses. Transparency and accountability need to be better integrated into current practices to ultimately combat the disproportionate targeting of non-violent groups.”
Indeed, just as media-driven hysteria about Islamist radicals fueled much of the disproportionate law enforcement emphasis during the Obama years, it’s clear that the Trump administration’s efforts to brand “antifa” as a terrorist threat distracted the FBI from investigations into violent attacks by white supremacists and far-right militants.
Law enforcement has been extremely solicitous of the rights of right-wing extremists. As The New York Times piece notes, the FBI didn’t send out any warning bulletins to law enforcement before Jan. 6 because they were concerned about the free-speech rights of the Proud Boys.
This is a structural problem that was created in 2017, when Congress first began demanding that the FBI explain its categorization of domestic terrorism and report back with data. As German explained in his February testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security:
The FBI has also thwarted congressional demands for data regarding its domestic terrorism program. In 2019, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, which included provisions requiring the FBI to produce data regarding how it uses its domestic terrorism resources. The bill required the FBI to publish data documenting the number of terrorist incidents and corresponding fatalities, and the number of investigations and prosecutions for each of the FBI’s domestic terrorism categories by June 2020. This data would allow Congress to determine if the FBI was disproportionately investigating categories that produced fewer fatal attacks, but the bureau has yet to produce it. In fact, the FBI has taken actions that could further obscure whether its investigative resources are properly focused on the most violent groups. Two years earlier, Sen. Durbin introduced the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2017, which sought data documenting the number of terrorist incidents and the number of investigations and prosecutions for each of the 11 domestic terrorism categories that the FBI maintained at the time. These included separate categories for white supremacists, anarchists, environmentalists, far-right militants, and Black Identity Extremists, and others. Though the bill had not yet passed, Sen. Durbin requested an FBI briefing on the matter for members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
When the FBI finally provided this briefing in April of 2019, it revealed it had collapsed the white supremacist and Black Identity Extremist categories into a new Racially Motivated Violent Extremist category, and the far-right militia and the anarchist categories into a single anti-government and anti-authority violent extremist category. These groupings make little operational sense, as subjects of investigations into white supremacist violence would rarely overlap with subjects of an investigation into Black Identity Extremists, and likewise for militias and anarchists. …
By 2017, the FBI had invented a new domestic terrorism program category it called the “Black Identity Extremism movement”. An FBI intelligence report cited six unrelated incidents over a three-year period in which Black subjects not associated with one another attacked police officers, to allege that a terrorist movement driven by “perceptions of police brutality against African Americans” existed. The report stated that “the perceived unchallenged illegitimate actions of law enforcement will inspire premeditated attacks against law enforcement” by so-called “Black identity extremists”, suggesting that the FBI’s concerns lay not in illegal police violence, but the hypothetical retaliation it might provoke.
In 2018 and 2019, the FBI conducted nationwide assessments of “Black identity extremists” under an intelligence collection operation it called “Iron Fist”, prioritizing these cases over investigations of far more prevalent violence from white supremacists and far right militants over that period, including mass shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue and an El Paso shopping mall.
The FBI also acknowledged using its most advanced surveillance aircraft to monitor BLM protests in Baltimore after the police killing of Freddie Gray in 2018, and again this month at the BLM protests in Washington DC. And, as the Intercept reported last week, at least four organizers of a Black Lives Matter rally in Cookeville, Tennessee, received unscheduled visits at their homes and workplaces by FBI agents assigned to the local joint terrorism taskforce. The agents questioned them about their social media posts, their plans for the protest, and whether they had connections to antifa—antifascist activists who Donald Trump has blamed for inciting violence at BLM protests. The FBI has reported it found no evidence of antifa involvement at the protests.
The FBI, German told Daily Kos, appears wedded to this “both sides” approach, reflected in the disingenuous categorization system. “The reason they did this was that if they are in the same category, then it becomes harder to disaggregate the numbers,” he said. “The same is true with collapsing antigovernment and anti-authority categories, putting militias in with anarchists. It becomes hard to disaggregate, so they produce the data as requested, but it distorts the picture.
“And unfortunately the [Biden] Strategy maintained that language, that ‘racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism,’ which even in the Strategy causes all kinds of confusion, because they talk about ‘racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists’ but then they have to qualify that they’re talking about white supremacists—which is exactly the confusion I think the categories were intended to create. Rather than clarifying what the FBI is doing, they’re making it confused.”
German also notes that one of the ways that FBI spokespersons enable the agency’s obfuscation is by throwing up a smokescreen around its investigative powers: “They consistently misstate their authorities,” German, a former FBI agent himself, told Daily Kos. “I’ve heard FBI spokesmen say, ‘We can’t monitor social media a white supremacist puts out unless we have probable cause.’ Probable cause is a standard for an arrest warrant. You can read their guidelines. That’s not what they say. They say you can look at open-source public information without opening any kind of case. You can do it during an assessment, where there is no predication.”
Overall, German agrees that the Biden Strategy is good start—but that it will be deeply undermined by its reliance on a dubious system of categorization.
“What I appreciated about the Strategy was that it talked about focusing on the violence,” he said. “It talked, in that initial part, about focusing on the violence—which is what I’ve been saying for the past 20 years. And the Attorney General highlighted that portion in his speech, which I was comforted by. But there’s not a lot in the Strategy that requires them to actually focus on violence.”
The key, he says, will lay in whether the Biden administration can reshape an agency with a long history of resisting efforts to confront far-right domestic terrorism. “The FBI is very good at taking their failures and turning them into boondoggles with new money and new authority,” he warned.