There has been a lot of news about the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence & Analysis’ (I&A) April 7, 2009 assessment on “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.”  Some of these news – rather commentary – reports have expressed concern with the assessment’s characterization of “rightwing.” Having endured three years of partial reporting, misreporting and downright yellow journalism by the media while working at DHS I learned, in addition to proper stress relief techniques, to disregard erroneous reporting. But having read I&A’s report, I have to admit, some of the media outlets have a point.

I&A periodically puts out these assessments with FBI coordination as a way to inform state and local officials. They’ve done these assessments on a variety of issues. The analysts that write them are simply taking information they’ve collected (mostly open source information) and compiling it in a way to shed light on an issue. So I don’t buy into the conspiracy theories that this was timed with the “tea party” demonstrations or that this is a political move to paint conservatives or Republicans as out of the main stream or dangerous.

However, the assessment’s footnote definition, in part, of ‘rightwing extremist’ includes groups that “reject[ing] federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.” Now I&A may be going too broad with that definition.

There are plenty of issues where I don’t think the federal government has the authority to act and that the state and local authority possesses that authority. My basis for that thinking comes from the US Constitution and from specific cases where the US Supreme Court upheld the basic tenents of federalism.  The vagueness of the assessment and the broad terms used to define ”rightwing extremism” deserve criticism and I&A should specifically catagorize “extremists”, especially in reports that begin with the words: “The DHS/Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) has no specific information that domestic rightwing* terrorists are currently planning acts of violence .  . .” You almost wonder why then law enforcement needs the assessment.

DHS I&A may also want to consider the true reasons behind extremists’ violent acts – and possibly the mental make-up of those individuals as part of their assessment. The assessment reasons that the economic downturn, the inability to get credit and the first African American president may cause rightwing extremists to become violent. I&A uses past experiences to support this assessment. But the assessment is mostly supposition. New investigations of noteworthy violent acts should cause I&A to factor in the physiological mindset of individuals who tend to become violent.
Next week is the tenth anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting. One of the most violent school massacres in our nation’s history, and it was committed by teenagers. Yesterday, USA Today ran the piece “10 years later, the real story behind Columbine”.  The story tackles a number of myths about why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 13 people and wounded 24 more. The article points out that the attack was planned as a bombing, however the bombs failed to detonate. The two teens planned to shoot people fleeing from the explosion inside the school and they even rigged their vehicles to explode when first responders began to arrive. (In any other context this would be called an act of terrorism.) Most notably the article debunks the myth that these two were outsiders, bullied by classmates and full of teen angst. Psychologists looking at these types of school shootings conclude first and foremost that these were teens with serious psychological problems, including depression and suicidal thoughts. However, immediately after the shootings the fingers were pointed at parents, school officials, bullying, gun laws and a variety of other symptoms. What was apparently missing from the initial diagnosis of “why” they did this was the teens’ severe mental state.

In the future, DHS I&A may want to include in its assessments what seems to be a key link between groups that are upset about the economy or proposed gun laws or anything else for that matter and the indicators that signal that a person will act violently. The Secret Service did this for school shootings in a 2002 report. Increased internet chatter, increased membership in “rightwing” groups and greater access to bomb-making internet sites aren’t the most reliable factors indicating violence. The assessment even points out that the “lone wolf” presents the most imminent threat to homeland security. So before we raise the risk level on these groups and increase the surveillance on people genuinely upset with the current economic and political situation, we may want to analyze the true indicators of violence and help state and local law enforcement to identify those in individuals.

Jeffrey Sural, who currently serves as counsel in the Legislative & Public Policy Group at Alston & Bird, LLP, is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Legislative Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security.

Jeff Sural serves as counsel in the Legislative & Public Policy Group at Alston & Bird, LLP. He will focus his practice on homeland security and transportation matters on Capitol Hill and in federal government agencies. Read More