Just as Republicans have refashioned themselves as fiscal conservatives in the age of Obama, apparently forgetting that they allowed a budget surplus to be transformed into a record deficit while George W. Bush was President, they now seem to be taking up the cause of civil liberties — at least as far as right-wing groups are concerned.
What has piqued their interest is a recent Department of Homeland Security assessment, sent to all local, state and tribal law enforcement agencies, detailing the potential terrorist threat posed by right-wing extremists.
Significantly, the assessment concludes that “lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.”
By citing right-wing extremists as the most significant domestic security threat, the report marks a radical departure from the Bush administration, which placed greater emphasis on the supposed threat posed by “homegrown” Islamic extremists, and often targeted liberal and left-wing activists for surveillance and harassment, under the vague umbrella of “counter-terrorism.”
Although the new DHS assessment does not contain any specific information on impending terrorist attacks, or single out any specific organizations, it generally warns that many current political and economic conditions parallel those of the 1990s, which saw a rise in right-wing extremism culminating in the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people on April 19, 1995.
But because the report argues that some on the Right may be motivated to join extremist organizations, conservatives are complaining that the DHS has unfairly singled out citizens concerned about gun rights, taxes and immigration control.
Conservatives also claim to be outraged over speculation in the report that disgruntled Iraq and Afghanistan veterans could be recruited by right-wing extremist groups.
“To characterize men and women returning home after defending our country as potential terrorists is offensive and unacceptable,” said House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.
Others are more generally decrying the report as an unwarranted political attack on the conservative movement.
“The recent DHS report … has nothing to do with protecting our country from the current threat of terrorism,” wrote conservative commentator JR Dieckmann. “It has everything to do with gathering information on people and groups who oppose the Obama regime in Washington.”
Jim Clymer, chairman of the right-wing Constitution Party, called the report “an egregious case of political profiling,” adding: “It’s indeed a frightening reality when those who subscribe to a constitutionally based political view are characterized as potentially violent.”
To some, however, the conservative outrage over the DHS report may smack of hypocrisy. There were few complaints from the Right, it has been pointed out, when the DHS in January 2009 issued an assessment on the threat that left-wing extremists pose, particularly when it comes to committing cyber attacks.
And of course, there was no comparable outrage over political and religious profiling during the Bush years. The outrage may seem all the more selective considering that the Bush administration often went beyond mere “profiling” to active surveillance, harassment and even prosecutions of non-violent political organizations that opposed the Bush agenda.
Under Bush’s Justice Department, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies often seemed more interested in containing the dissent inspired by policies such as the Iraq War than they were in thwarting actual terrorist activities.
Following a move in 2002 by Attorney General John Ashcroft to loosen restrictions that had been placed on the FBI after the COINTELPRO political-spying scandal of the 1970s, the FBI soon began collecting information on and targeting all sorts of progressive organizations.
In 2003, the FBI sent a memorandum to local law enforcement agencies before planned demonstrations against the war in Iraq. The memo instructed local law enforcement agencies to be on the lookout for “possible indicators of protest activity and report any potentially illegal acts to the nearest FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.”
Then, prior to the 2004 Democratic and Republican national conventions, the JTTF raided the homes of activists who were organizing demonstrations, while FBI agents in Missouri, Kansas and Colorado spied on and interrogated activists. [NYT, Aug. 16, 2004]
The FBI also began collecting thousands of pages of internal documents on civil rights and antiwar groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Greenpeace and United for Peace and Justice.
Leslie Cagan, the national coordinator for UFPJ, said that she was particularly concerned that the FBI’s counterterrorism division was discussing the coalition’s operations.
“We always assumed the FBI was monitoring us, but to see the counterterrorism people looking at us like this is pretty jarring,” Cagan said.
Further revelations of the government improperly classifying antiwar groups as terrorist threats continued to surface.
In December 2005, for example, NBC News revealed the existence of a secret 400-page Pentagon document listing 1,500 “suspicious incidents” over a 10-month period, including dozens of antiwar demonstrations that were classified as a “threat.”
More recently, the state of Maryland notified dozens of nonviolent activists that they were wrongfully labeled as terrorists in the federal terrorism database. Among those notified were Ardeth Platte and Carol Gilbert, two nuns who have spent their lives protesting nuclear weapons and war through nonviolent acts of civil disobedience.
“To be labeled a terrorist is really very hard to hear and to accept when your whole life has been one of loving nonviolence,” Platte said. “Does civil dissent and civil unrest mean that people are going to be labeled as terrorists?” [For more on this, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Are You Palling Around With Terrorists?”]
Yet, with a few notable exceptions, Republicans in Congress largely remained silent every time a new abuse of power was revealed. In some cases, Republicans even seemed to endorse the targeting of Bush-era dissenters.
“The administration has not only the right, but the duty, in my opinion, to pursue Fifth Column movements,” Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, once told Attorney General Alberto Gonzales during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Who’s a Threat?
Beyond the seeming hypocrisy of the GOP’s selective outrage over political profiling and civil liberties, there is also the larger question of whether the DHS report accurately assesses the nation’s most pressing internal security concerns.
Underlining the Republican critiques of the report is their annoyance that the focus of the campaign against terrorism has shifted away from leftists and Muslims and towards constituencies that currently make up the base of the Republican Party.
After years of the U.S. government targeting groups and individuals that are out of step with what Republicans consider the “American mainstream,” suddenly, the Department of Homeland Security is highlighting individuals on the Right as potential threats.
Although Republicans may not welcome this new emphasis, there is ample reason to believe that right-wing extremists pose at least as great a threat to domestic security as Islamic extremists, and certainly a greater threat than antiwar and environmental activists on the Left.
While some left-wing organizations, such as the Weather Underground in the 1970s and the Earth Liberation Front in the 1990s, have undoubtedly carried out bombings and arson attacks, these acts have been carried out largely against empty buildings, including both government and corporate targets. Human casualties have been a rare and mostly unintended result.
Right-wing and white supremacist organizations, on the other hand, have consistently targeted human life, from the Southern lynchings and church bombings of the Ku Klux Klan to the abortion clinic bombings and right-wing militia violence of the 1990s.
And as the DHS report points out, there are many parallels between the current era and the 1990s.
Then, just as now, the country was experiencing an economic downturn, with factories being closed down and jobs being shipped overseas. There was a backlash against immigration policies and federal efforts at gun control, and some disgruntled Gulf War veterans, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, were attracted to the right-wing militia movement.
A similar dynamic is taking place today. Not only is the country experiencing a severe economic crisis, but there are also the same concerns regarding gun control, immigration and other hot-button issues.
Recent attacks on a Unitarian Church and on three Pittsburgh police officers indicate that there is abundant reason to worry about a rise in right-wing violence that is motivated by perceived political grievances.
In the July 2008 shooting at the Unitarian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, gunman Jim David Adkisson opened fire on people attending a youth performance, killing two and wounding seven. He later told police that he was motivated by “his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country,” according to the sworn affidavit of a police officer who questioned the confessed killer.
The attack on the Pittsburgh police earlier this month also seemed to have a right-wing extremist motivation. The shooter, Richard Poplawski, had been stockpiling guns and ammunition, fearing that the Obama administration was poised to ban guns, and that the police would be unable to deal with the ensuing chaos brought about by the economic downturn. He was also upset about recently losing his job, according to friends.
History of Violence
There is also reason to believe that some returning military veterans are increasingly attracted to right-wing extremism. The DHS assessment cites a report issued by the FBI in 2008 — during the Bush administration — that some returning military veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have joined extremist groups with violent tendencies.
“Although individuals with military backgrounds constitute a small percentage of white supremacist extremists,” the FBI concluded, “they frequently occupy leadership roles within extremist groups and their involvement has the potential to reinvigorate an extremist movement suffering from loss of leadership and in-fighting during the post-9/11 period.”
The FBI noted that the military training that veterans bring to the right-wing extremist movement may increase the ability of lone offenders to carry out violence from the movement’s fringes.
Also, as the DHS notes, there is evidence that right-wing extremists have already begun to infiltrate the armed forces, both for the training that the military provides, and to recruit other service members to their cause.
The DHS cites a Southern Poverty Law Center study, which documented in 2006 that “large numbers of potentially violent neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other white supremacists are now learning the art of warfare in the armed forces.”
Relying on interviews with Defense Department investigators, the SPLC determined that thousands of soldiers in the Army alone are involved in extremist activity.
“We’ve got Aryan Nations graffiti in Baghdad,” Defense Department detective Scott Barfield told the civil rights organization.
Neo-Nazis “stretch across all branches of service,” Barfield elaborated. “They are linking up across the branches once they’re inside, and they are hard-core.”
Although the references in the DHS report to military veterans have generated the fiercest criticism from Republicans, there is actually much evidence that some returning veterans have violent tendencies and may pose a threat to public safety.
While Gulf War veteran McVeigh is the most often cited example of a disgruntled veteran using his military experience to wage war against the United States, he is not the only example.
John Allen Muhammad, the so-called “Beltway Sniper” who terrorized the Washington, DC area for three weeks in the fall of 2002, was also a veteran of the Gulf War. He qualified as an “expert” with the M16, which is the highest rating the Army grants in three levels of marksmanship.
He was also attached to a West Coast army base famous for its sniper training program, which used the motto “One shot, one kill.”
Prior to his service in the military, Muhammad was considered friendly and non-violent. By the time he divorced his second wife in 1999, however, there were indications of increasingly violent tendencies. His spouse sought a court protection order against him and court records show that she twice accused him of domestic violence.
“I am afraid of John,” Mildred Green Muhammad wrote in a complaint on March 3, 2000. “He was a demolition expert in the military. He’s behaving very, very irrational. Whenever he does talk with me, he always says that he’s going to destroy my life and I hang up the phone.”
While few would argue that the military is to blame for the murderous choices made by McVeigh and Muhammad, there does seem to be a well-established correlation between military service and violent tendencies, especially when vets don’t get the support they need upon returning home.
With increasing numbers of veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, there has been a sharp rise in the incidence of domestic violence, which has reached “historic frequency,” according to a new book by Helen Benedict called The Lonely Soldier.
Benedict notes that post-traumatic stress disorder rates appear to be higher among Iraq veterans than among those who have served in Afghanistan or even in Vietnam. “One of the symptoms of this disorder,” she notes, “is uncontrollable violence.”
“Domestic violence rates among veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are higher than those of the general population,” further notes an October 2006 article in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.
And yet, even as the link between PTSD and domestic violence became increasingly clear, the cash-strapped Department of Veterans Affairs moved to cut benefits to veterans suffering from the disorder.
As the Iraq War lasted longer and required more troops than the Bush administration had anticipated, evidence emerged that the military was working to ensure that Iraq veterans not be diagnosed with PTSD, a condition that obligates the military to provide intensive long-term care, including the possibility of lifetime disability payments.
In June 2008, an e-mail surfaced written by Norma Perez, Ph.D., a VA psychologist who coordinates PTSD cases.
She wrote, “Given that we are having more and more compensation-seeking veterans, I’d like to suggest that you refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out. Consider a diagnosis of adjustment disorder.”
So, instead of decrying the DHS report for “singling out” military veterans for terrorism-related concerns, perhaps Republicans in Congress would do better to ensure that the VA receives the funding it needs to properly address the emotional problems that returning veterans may have.
There also might be some self-criticism from Republicans and conservative commentators for their failure to speak out when the Bush administration was using the broad brush of “terrorism” to paint anti-war, environmental and various leftist groups as potential threats to the nation’s security.
Nat Parry is co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.