Last week, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) whistleblower told the press that agency officials had ordered him to downplay the threat of white supremacist terrorism. But a recent DHS intelligence assessment about physical threats to the 2020 election season identifies “white supremacist extremists” as the foremost threat to the democratic process this year.
The intelligence assessment, first referenced by Yahoo News and published in full by The Nation, was produced by the DHS’ Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) division. In an interview with The Nation, a former senior DHS I&A intelligence officer corroborated the whistleblower’s claims, describing the challenges he had faced to monitoring white supremacists under the Trump administration.
“As soon as Trump came in, counterterrorism ended,” the former intelligence officer said, pointing to the Trump administration’s decision to dissolve DHS’s domestic terrorism division. Since then, DHS I&A’s focus has turned to trivial immigration matters like individuals overstaying their travel visas, he explained.
“The only immigration we should be worried about is a nexus to terrorism, not student overstays and bullshit,” the former intelligence officer said.
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The assessment, dated August 17 of this year and marked for official use only, provides an overview of different threats to the election. Threats are said to include not just white supremacists but also individuals wary of the government’s Covid-19 restrictions, Second Amendment extremists, and confrontations between protesters and counterprotesters.
The report reads: “We continue to assess lone offender white supremacist extremists and other lone offender domestic terrorist actors with personalized ideologies, including those based on grievances against a target’s perceived actual political affiliation, policies, or worldview, pose the greatest threat of lethal violence.”
The assessment links the white supremacist threat to anti-immigrant sentiments, stating, “Immigration-related grievances contributed to motivations of three separate white supremacist extremist shootings since 2018, resulting in 35 total fatalities.”
The intelligence assessment contrasts sharply with the Trump administration’s characterization of threats to public safety. Trump has repeatedly inveighed against violent protesters, especially “antifa,” which he has vowed to designate a terrorist group. While a formal terror designation requires evidence of foreign sponsorship, The Nation recently reported that DHS intelligence officials have quietly sought to tie antifa to foreign militant groups.
Trump’s Attorney General William Barr reportedly instructed prosecutors to consider charging violent protesters with sedition, a rarely invoked law that applies to individuals seeking to overthrow the government.
“The proposal to charge protesters with sedition seems like one more step in the unraveling of constitutional government,” Steven Aftergood, who heads the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, told The Nation. He added that “accusing them of sedition adds a preposterous political overlay that itself is a form of incitement by the attorney general.”
“Antifa,” short for “anti-fascist,” is a largely decentralized movement of far-left individuals motivated by opposition to perceived fascist groups. While antifa has engaged in illegal activities including property destruction and in some cases violence, no one affiliated with it has been linked to a single murder in the United States in the past 25 years, according to a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. By contrast, the same study found that far-right extremists in the United States have killed 329 people in that time frame.
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Despite the Trump administration’s rhetoric, the rise in far-right violence has not gone completely unnoticed. Last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress that the majority of the bureau’s domestic terrorism arrests were of white supremacists.
“Historically, there’s a pattern of increasing political violence during elections,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent. German, who himself once worked undercover in white supremacist groups, said that one of the problems is the lack of federal data on far-right groups.
“Since the federal government doesn’t collect data on white supremacist violence, we don’t really know how much it’s increased.”