WASHINGTON — It was a pretty straightforward request.
In January, the watchdog group American Oversight asked the Department of Homeland Security to provide the number of analysts inside the agency’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis devoted to working on “non-Islamist domestic terrorism threats” — including right-wing extremism or attacks motivated by “white supremacist or antigovernment ideology” — for the past ten years. The group also asked for memos, guidance, or other paperwork regarding any changes to the number of analysts working on those issues since President Trump took office.
Some of the most violent hate crimes and acts of domestic terrorism in this country’s history have occurred in the last decade: the 2012 mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, the mass shooting at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston in 2015, the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville in 2017 and the murder of Heather Heyer, the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last year, and the El Paso mass shooting last week, to name only a few. “Every marginalized community is under attack right now,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, tells Rolling Stone. “The toxic ideology that is driving so much of this violence, animating so much of this intolerance, is white supremacy.”
Over that same decade-long period, members of Congress have repeatedly questioned the federal government’s commitment to studying, monitoring, and stopping domestic terrorism and extremist violence. In 2009, after a DHS report about the rise of right-wing extremism was leaked to the media, then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano apologized in the face of pressure from conservatives, and the office that produced the report, the Extremism and Radicalization Branch, was disbanded by the Obama administration.
In the past three years, despite the rise in recorded hate crimes, the Trump administration has reportedly deemphasized its focus on domestic terrorism and white-nationalist violence: DHS disbanded a domestic terrorism intelligence unit, according to the Daily Beast, and reassigned those analysts to different departments. The move raised questions about how serious the Trump administration was about combating homegrown extremist violence. (CNN reported on Thursday that the White House had “rebuffed” efforts by DHS to put a greater emphasis on domestic terrorism in the most recent National Counterterrorism Strategy, which lays out the administration’s priorities in fighting terrorism at home and overseas.)
It was in that spirit that American Oversight requested hard data about the manpower that DHS had committed to preventing future acts of domestic terrorism. “Given recent incidents of deadly violence apparently inspired by far-right extremism, such as the killing of 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, it is important for the American public to understand the resources that DHS is expending on analyzing and countering this threat,” wrote Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight.
Five months later, American Oversight got an answer. It was bizarre and troubling.
In a three-page letter, the FOIA office for the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at DHS said its final response was the result of “a collaboration of thirteen analysis worked on domestic terrorism threats” — a garbled sentence that doesn’t make sense. (Was it referring to 13 different “analysts,” as in employees, or 13 “analyses,” as in reports?) After trying to explain how much work went into DHS’s response, the agency wrote that it could neither confirm nor deny whether any records existed that fit American Oversight’s parameters due to exemptions meant to protect “law enforcement techniques or procedures” and “intelligence sources and methods.”
As if its letter wasn’t confusing enough, DHS attached to its denial an official report — about “suspected environmental rights extremists.” The May 2017 “Field Analysis Report,” jointly produced by DHS and several state-level intelligence centers, accuses pipeline protesters of exploiting “Native American causes” to benefit their “own violent agenda” to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. It documents a series of incidents in which protesters allegedly briefly shut down pipelines along the U.S.-Canada border; fired a gun several times into a portable toilet and a backhoe; and sabotaged heavy construction equipment on several pipeline construction sites. (American Oversight provided the response letter and the report to Rolling Stone.)
The report does not document any incidents resulting in loss of life or bodily injury suffered by any individuals. It does not mention right-wing extremism or any form of domestic terrorism apart from what it calls “environmental rights extremism.” A confusing denial and a report about pipeline attacks was the sum total of DHS’s response to a legitimate and timely request for information about right-wing extremism and the agency’s efforts to track and prevent it. In other words: Here’s all the work we did. We can’t give you any relevant documents. We can’t confirm or deny whether any such documents even exist. But here’s one random document that’s sort of relevant.
DHS’s response is bewildering on several levels. Why did the agency give multiple reasons for not releasing any information — and then provide a report on environmental extremism anyway? Why a report on environmental extremism as opposed to a more serious threat like, say, white supremacy or anti-government ideology? Who made the call to release just this one report to American Oversight?
The FOIA officer for the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at DHS tells Rolling Stone that the agency’s inclusion of the environmental extremism report was “an administrative error.” The official added that DHS’s response to American Oversight “was less clear than it should have been” because it didn’t fully respond to all of the group’s requests.
“We asked DHS how many people were assigned to analyze domestic terror threats, and they responded with a report about protecting pipelines from environmental activists,” Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, tells Rolling Stone. “It’s always possible this was a mistake, but with violent, white-nationalist extremism on the rise, this is information you’d expect an administration to have handy and to want to advertise if they were taking the threat seriously.”