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Are the FBI and Congress Politicizing Terrorism Intelligence?

Laura W. Murphy,
Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
Mike German,
Senior Policy Counsel,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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January 24, 2013

Since 1990, 670 people have been killed and 3,053 injured in attacks by far-right extremists in the United States, according to a new study by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point. Perhaps more frightening, the CTC says its data shows the number of violent attacks has increased precipitously since the late 1990s, and especially since 2006. The report has generated a predictable (and frankly deserved) backlash against it, highlighting the difficulty government agencies have had in analyzing politically-motivated violence in an objective manner.

Figure 1 – Attacks Initiated by Far-Right Groups/Individuals per Year

Chart courtesy of Arie Perliger, USMA West Point, Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America’s Violent Far-Right

The CTC report is extremely valuable in that it highlights the relatively high level of violence coming from far-right extremists that the FBI and certain members of Congress have failed to acknowledge, and even downplayed in comparison to threats from other groups. In 2010, for instance, the FBI issued an intelligence report suggesting white supremacist violence dropped from 2007 to 2009, when the CTC shows a sharp increase in attacks from the far right over that time. And from 2001 through 2008 the FBI called environmental terrorists the number one domestic threat, even though attacks from such groups resulted in no deaths over this period. An FBI report on terrorism from 2002 to 2005 shows relatively few instances of right-wing violence, whereas the CTC report suggests there were hundreds of attacks the FBI apparently ignored.

The CTC includes acts of vandalism within its dataset, which may not be appropriately considered “terrorism” and might artificially inflate the number of “attacks,” but the FBI included acts of vandalism from environmental groups in its terrorism report, so it should have captured these far-right incidents as well. The CTC report also makes clear that Rep. Peter King’s House Homeland Security Committee erred in holding a series of hearings questioning the loyalty of the Muslim-American community, and ignoring requests to take a broader look at other groups that posed significant security threats. The CTC report’s higher homicide rate for far-right extremists aligns much closer to recent academic studies and think-tank reports than to previous government reports on the issue.

It is extremely troubling that more than 10 years after 9/11, almost 20 years since Oklahoma City, and despite millions of dollars and multiple reorganizations designed to turn it into an intelligence-driven agency, the FBI is still not properly tracking and analyzing acts of extremist violence against Americans. The only other possible explanation is worse: that both the FBI and Congress are intentionally obfuscating the nature of these threats and injecting politics into what should be a rigorously objective analysis. This Washington Times quote from an unnamed Republican congressional staffer seems to support this conclusion:

“Shouldn’t the Combating Terrorism Center be combating radical Islam around the globe instead of perpetuating the left’s myth that right-wingers are terrorists?” the staffer said. “The $64,000 dollar question is when will the Combating Terrorism Center publish their study on real left-wing terrorists like the Animal Liberation Front, Earth Liberation Front, and the Weather Underground?”

Of course while several property crimes have been attributed to the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front, neither group ever killed anyone, and the Weather Underground hasn’t existed for at least thirty years, which only highlights the problem with politicizing intelligence matters. Violent acts should not be viewed through a political lens. Terrorism is too serious a concern to Americans to allow one’s political viewpoint to obscure a clear analysis of all deadly threats to Americans. Politics simply has no place in intelligence analysis.

There are some serious problems with the CTC report, however, particularly its lengthy discussion of the ideologies of a multitude of far-right groups and its acceptance of the concept of “radicalization.” Its overbroad description of these ideologies, theologies and political movements on the far right sweep in many non-violent groups and individuals into the discussion and unfairly link them to criminal activity. For instance, the report’s description of what it calls the anti-federalist movement contains this description:

They also espouse strong convictions regarding the federal government, believing it to be corrupt and tyrannical, with a natural tendency to intrude on individuals’ civil and constitutional rights. Finally, they support civil activism, individual freedoms, and self government.

Many Americans share these beliefs, so it is hard to call them “extreme.”

By spending so much time examining the far-right ideologies, theologies and political movements, rather than analyzing the specific criminal acts and those who commit them, the report tends to give the mistaken impression that people holding such opinions, or associating with those that do, are more prone to violence. Empirical studies of actual terrorists reveal no such direct link between ideas and violent actions. The truth is many Americans hold views that others might consider extreme, including those discussed in the report, but only a miniscule percentage of those holding extreme views engage in violent acts. Besides, the number of attacks the CTC attributes to the far right over more than 20 years, while high in comparison to other groups, is a tiny percentage of the 1.2 million violent crimes committed in the US on an annual basis, including more than 14,000 homicides each year.

Law enforcement officials reading the CTC report might get the idea that they need to investigate the groups it mentions or others that express similar beliefs, even without any specific evidence or reasonable suspicion they are doing anything wrong, just as they have in implementing extraordinary surveillance measures in Muslim-American communities. This result would be a mistake that would only further misdirect security resources. The First Amendment protects our right to hold whatever religious or political views we choose, to associate with others who hold similar views and to petition the government to address our grievances. Unwarranted surveillance of these activities chills the free exercise of these rights, regardless of the political viewpoints held. The CTC, FBI and Congress should avoid characterizing the political or religious views of the various groups they consider extreme, and should instead focus on investigating criminal acts in an apolitical and objective manner.

Hopefully the CTC report will cause the FBI to re-examine its intelligence priorities to focus on real threats, and scale back invasive surveillance and investigative measures taken against Muslim-American communities, environmental activists and others where there is no reasonable evidence of wrongdoing. The worst possible response would be for the FBI to broaden the number and types of groups it targets with is growing surveillance powers, which will only violate more Americans’ rights.

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