Two years before the Tucson massacre, the Department of Homeland Security warned in a report that right-wing extremism was on the rise and could prompt "lone wolves" to launch attacks. But the agency backed away from the report amid intense criticism from Republicans, including future House Speaker John Boehner.
The report, which warned that the crippled economy and the election of the first black president were “unique drivers for right-wing radicalization and recruitment,” described the rise of “lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology [as] the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States,” according to a copy reviewed by The Center for Public Integrity.
In the wake of last weekend’s attempted assassination of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, which left six dead and 14 wounded, the report’s warning of a lone wolf attack from someone with extremist tendencies seems prescient.
But when the April 2009 report was issued, it was overwhelmingly criticized by conservative commentators and lawmakers, who derided it as political propaganda from the Obama administration. Some experts worry that its findings were ignored due to political blowback.
“Not only was [the report] buried, the actual unit which created it was disemboweled,” said Brian Levin, a professor of criminal justice and the director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. He noted that DHS is congressionally mandated to study long-term trends among extremist groups.
Levin worried that political fallout rendered the report’s findings “impotent,” as well as future reports from the department profiling extremist groups. “Rather than the report being a hit piece, the hit piece was what was done in the wake of the report.
“Was there some awkward language in one section? Sure. But it was a very well-done report.”
The awkward language he refers to was a section in the report warning that returning veterans could be prime targets for recruitment into extremist organizations. Then-Minority Leader Boehner of Ohio was one of many Republicans who called on DHS to apologize.
“Furthermore, the Secretary of Homeland Security owes the American people an explanation for why … her own department is using [“terrorist”] to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation,” said Boehner, now House speaker.
Leading conservatives claimed the report was a White House-directed hit piece—commentator Michelle Malkin derided it as “propaganda.”
Secretary Janet Napolitano was forced to issue a statement defending the study, stating that “we do not—nor will we ever—monitor ideology or political beliefs.” When asked about the report at an event in late 2010, Napolitano described it as “ancient history.”
The report’s primary focus was the fear that if the economy continued its downturn, it could mix with racial and political opposition to the election of Barack Obama and the ongoing debate about immigration. The report was especially concerned that these factors paralleled those that led to several incidents of domestic terrorism during the Clinton era.
“The current economic and political climate has some similarities to the 1990s when right-wing extremism experienced a resurgence fueled largely by an economic recession, criticism about the outsourcing of jobs, and the perceived threat to U.S. power and sovereignty by other foreign powers,” it said.
Unlike the 1990s, however, “the threat posed by lone wolves and small terrorist cells is more pronounced than in past years.”
Threat analysts within the department’s Extremism and Radicalization Branch, which produced the extremism report, also produced a “Domestic Extremism Lexicon” in late March 2009, just before the controversy began. The lexicon, which defined different extremist groups, was recalled quickly after being issued. When the lexicon came to light a few months later, it received criticism for including anti-immigration and antiabortion groups on its list of extremist organizations.
Giffords, a Democrat, had been the target of violent threats over the past year. In March, her Tucson office was vandalized hours after she voted in favor of President Obama’s health-care reform bill. Other Democrats experienced similar threats or vandalism.
The three-term congresswoman has received generally poor ratings from pro-gun groups. Gun Owners of America gave her a D in its 2010 candidate rankings, and the NRA gave her a D+ in 2008. Giffords has described herself as a gun owner, and she joined the NRA’s amicus brief regarding the Washington, D.C., gun ban. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ban, she described the decision as “a common sense decision that reaffirms the constitutional right—and Arizona tradition—of owning firearms. I commend the court for ruling in favor of restoring our right to bear arms.”
The U.S. Capitol Police, which is in charge of security for members of Congress, does not disclose statistics on threats to sitting representatives. The sergeant at arms for the Senate has said that threats of violence against senators went from 29 in 2009 to 49 in 2010. Speaking to reporters following a moment of silence at the Capitol today, Terrance Gainer, the sergeant at arms, said that overall the number of direct threats against members of Congress is “very low.”
While discussion has swirled around possible ties between accused gunman Jared Loughner and right-wing extremists, DHS on Monday said department officials “have not established any such possible link.” Levin doesn’t believe extremism was the sole driving factor. “This guy is a mentally deranged person first,” he said, and noted that the mentally ill often latch on to conspiracy theories to layer over their already “obsessive and aggressive template.”
A press officer for the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment for this story.
Aaron Mehta is a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative reporting organization in Washington D.C.