For weeks, President Donald Trump and top advisers like Attorney General William Barr have sought to blame antifa for sporadic violence and rioting during the ongoing Black Lives Matters protests. With little evidence, Trump even threatened to label antifa, an amorphous left-wing movement opposed to fascism, as a domestic terrorist organization.
But the president’s strategy of pinning blame on antifa in quick, broad brushstrokes is undercut not only by constitutional hurdles and conflicting evidence on the ground, but also by a sobering report from his own intelligence officials that calls for an entirely revamped approach to domestic extremism. The analysis from the National Counterterrorism Center, which has not been previously reported, offers an unusually self-critical view of the gaps and weaknesses in combating homegrown terror threats, and it suggests that the focus needs to be on individual actors who break the law, rather than groups.
The report raises troubling questions about the government’s ability to head off a major attack from extremists at home. In stark terms, it depicts a system ill-equipped to deal with the rising threat of domestic extremists because of splintered approaches by different agencies.
The report depicts a system ill-equipped to deal with the rising threat of domestic extremists because of splintered approaches by different agencies.
The report warned bluntly that “there is no whole-of-government [domestic terrorism] threat picture.” Federal officials cannot even agree on what to call violent extremists inside the United States, their efforts are “rarely integrated,” and combating the “potent” threat is not a top priority in some agencies, said the report, which grew out of a high-level summit of government officials and outside experts last fall.
As a result, intelligence officials are hampered by a “lack of analytic research” and formal threat assessments to draw on in their work, the report said, and that gap in valuable intelligence “in turn reinforces the lack of policymaker prioritization.”
The six-page report summarized the key takeaways from a highly unusual two-day conference on domestic terrorism organized last September outside Washington, D.C., by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security. It brought together more than 120 experts on the subject, including officials across the federal government, as well as local law enforcement officers, academics, and private-sector analysts.
Joseph Maguire, who was then the acting director of national intelligence, spoke to the group himself and deemed the event a “call to action” to confront the growing domestic terror threat, according to the report.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence refused to comment on the report, and a spokesperson declined to say what steps intelligence officials had taken in response to the findings. The report from the counterterrorism center, which is part of the DNI’s office, is dated January of this year and was posted online by the office in March.
A number of the outside experts invited to participate the conference said that the government’s acknowledgement of shortcomings in identifying domestic extremists was a significant step by an administration that had shown little interest in the problem. But turnover and tumult among Trump’s intelligence advisers make it unclear what changes, if any, may take place as a result of the findings.
“It’s true there’s no whole-of-government approach, and that needs to change,” former Justice Department official Mary McCord, who gave a presentation at the invitation-only conference, said in an interview. “If you’re going to get serious about thwarting domestic terrorism plots, you’re going to have to use more tools than we do.”
The findings come as intelligence officials have been grappling not only with far-right violence connected to the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, but also with conflicting messages from Trump and his top advisers about the real source of the violence.
Since the protests began, Trump has tried to cast blame on antifa and what he called “a lot of radical left, bad people” for occasional bursts of violence during what have been largely peaceful demonstrations. Beyond threatening to designate antifa as a terrorist organization — a move constitutional scholars say would likely be illegal — he went so far as to fuel a baseless conspiracy theory about a 75-year-old Buffalo, New York, protester badly hurt by police, accusing the injured man of being a covert “antifa provocateur.”
Rudy Giuliani, the president’s private counsel and personal adviser, blamed “antifa, Black Lives Matter, the communists, and their allies” for episodes of violence and destruction around the country in an appearance last week on Fox News.
Rudy Giuliani blamed “antifa, Black Lives Matter, the communists, and their allies” for episodes of violence and destruction around the country.
Barr, meanwhile, declared at the very start of the protests that “the violence instigated and carried out by antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.” He announced on Friday that he was creating a federal task force to confront “anti-government extremists engaged in indefensible acts of violence designed to undermine public order.” He again pointed the finger at antifa, but this time, he also named a far-right group: supporters of the so-called Boogaloo movement, a white extremist group that envisions a coming “civil war.”
But there is little evidence to back up Trump administration claims that antifa is driving the violence. Instead, law enforcement officials on the ground point mainly to the far-right groups — principally the “Boogaloo Boys” — for stoking violence and rioting.
In Oakland, authorities accused an active-duty Air Force sergeant who declared himself a Boogaloo of ambushing two federal security officers near a protest, killing one and wounding the other. And in Las Vegas, three men aligned with that same white extremist group — all of them military veterans — were arrested at a protest and charged with plotting to detonate Molotov cocktails and stoke violence among the crowds of protesters.
Even before the Black Lives Matters protests, a string of deadly attacks against minorities by white supremacists — including the rampage last August at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, which killed 22 people, most of them Latinos — had prompted the FBI and DHS to elevate the threat posed by domestic extremists. The agencies put them on a par with foreign-based terrorist groups like the Islamic State and other Islamist extremists, which have been the dominant focus of counterterrorism officials since the September 11 attacks.
One of the most alarming far-right plots emerged just last week, and like several earlier episodes, it involved an American soldier.
Federal prosecutors said that a 22-year-old Army private from Kentucky named Ethan Melzer aligned himself with a violent neo-Nazi group and sent along sensitive military information about deployment schedules to facilitate an attack on his own unit in Turkey. In private chat messages, Meltzer told members of the neo-Nazi group, known as the “RapeWaffen Division” or “Order of the Nine Angles,” that he wanted to inflict mass casualties and start “a new war,” even if it meant he himself might be killed, according to his indictment. The authorities said that Melzer confessed after his arrest last month and “declared himself to be a traitor against the United States whose conduct was tantamount to treason.”
Investigators with the FBI and the military appear to have had a confidential source within the neo-Nazi group whom they used to find out about the plot as it was being hatched, according to an unsealed affidavit in the case.
But the broad findings from the National Counterterrorism Center report suggest that authorities could be left in the dark about other extremist plots — and unable to head them off — without wide changes to the system.
Trump himself has shown little inclination to go after domestic extremists, even before the recent racial unrest. In one of his most notorious proclamations, he said there were “very fine people on both sides” at the violent neo-Nazi demonstration in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, and after last year’s massacre of 49 Muslims at two New Zealand mosques, he rejected the suggestion that white nationalists were a growing global threat, characterizing them instead as “a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.” At the same time, his administration gutted funding for an Obama-era program called Countering Violent Extremism, meant to head off the radicalization of Americans.
The latest accusations against Trump of fanning racial tensions came this weekend, when he retweeted a video from Florida that included a supporter yelling “White Power!” at protesters. The president later took down the post.
Given the administration’s record, “a lot of us were pleasantly surprised that this conference was convened in the first place — it was overdue,” said Brian Levin, who runs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino and helped lead a discussion at the event. “There was a message from the top saying, ‘I get it.’”
But that message has now become muddled, Levin and other participants said, after the Trump administration fired both Maguire, the acting intelligence chief, and Russ Travers, the acting head of the counterterrorism center, within weeks of each other earlier this year. Trump was reportedly furious with Maguire — and questioned his loyalty — for allowing an aide to give a classified congressional briefing about Russian meddling in the 2020 election.
Darryl Johnson, a former senior analyst on far-right extremism at DHS, said in an interview he was optimistic after taking part in the conference that federal officials were determined to develop a more thorough approach to domestic terrorism. But with the recent changeover among intelligence officials, “we’re back to square one, spinning our wheels,” he said.
Johnson, who now runs his own threat-analysis firm, authored a report at DHS in 2009 on the rising threat of right-wing extremism, but the Obama administration retracted it after a fierce backlash from Republicans. He was also involved in DHS’s internal efforts to develop a common “lexicon” to describe political extremists and their ideologies, but that, too, was scuttled.
Johnson said it is clear to him that intelligence officials today are still missing comprehensive and valuable data on violent extremists, even as the threat has risen. “So if you’re not collecting data,” he asked, “how can you have any kind of analysis of what the threat is?”
“When you increase the powers of federal agencies, it can boomerang back and hit activists and marginalized groups, and it doesn’t hit the intended target.”
Legal conflicts have hindered the effort, as well.
For decades, federal prosecutors have commonly used terrorism laws on the books to charge violent extremists in the United States connected to Islamic or foreign terror organizations, but they have applied the terrorism label much less often when it comes to domestic attacks involving young white, American-born men rather than Muslims of Middle Eastern heritage.
The intelligence report alluded to the dual treatment, saying that the government’s criteria for publicly labeling attacks as “domestic terrorism” is “opaque and inconsistent.” It said that “the U.S. government needs to find a way to increase public trust by being transparent with the public about how [domestic terrorism] definitions are derived, defined, and used.”
“Fusion” centers in each state now bring together local and federal officials to identify public safety and terrorism threats. But these types of cooperative efforts remain fractured, with partners working at “cross-purposes,” the report said, and it encouraged federal officials to work more closely with local law enforcement agencies nationwide and with private technology companies, which “are emerging as the dominant funder of research on violent extremism.” One open-source tool that officials highlighted was identifying locales with “the greatest amount of internet searches related to white supremacy.”
Such tactics carry legal risks, however, because of free speech rights and civil liberties safeguards. For instance, designating a group inside the United States as a “domestic terrorism” organization — as Trump threatened to do with antifa — “could be perceived as government overreach and/or unconstitutional,” the report said.
The FBI, in particular, has a long history of improperly harassing and spying on political opponents and activists under the guise of national security, most notoriously against civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s under then-Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Some officials at the conference argued for trying to expand current laws to carve out a new criminal statute specific to domestic terrorism, bringing more legal powers with it. But Heidi Beirich, a longtime specialist on domestic extremism, argued at the meeting that while federal officials should be focusing more resources on violent white supremacists, new domestic terror laws are unnecessary and could trample on civil liberties.
“When you increase the powers of federal agencies, it can boomerang back and hit activists and marginalized groups, and it doesn’t hit the intended target,” Beirich, who recently co-founded an advocacy group called the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said in an interview.
Beirich said the weaknesses that federal officials acknowledged regarding domestic extremists could have been “a turning point,” but she now worries that they will come to nothing because of a lack of political will.
“The threat continues, and we remain with blinders on,” Beirich said. “The next mass attack is virtually assured, and there’ll be nobody who saw it coming.”