Department of Homeland Security intelligence officials are targeting activists it considers antifa and attempting to tie them to a foreign power, according to a DHS intelligence report obtained exclusively by The Nation.
The intelligence report, titled “The Syrian Conflict and Its Nexus to the U.S.-based Antifascist Movement,” mentions several Americans, including a left-wing podcast host who traveled to Syria to fight ISIS. The report includes these individuals’ personal information, including their Social Security numbers, home addresses, and social media accounts, much of the data generated by the DHS’s Tactical Terrorism Response Teams. As the intelligence report states, “ANTIFA is being analyzed under the 2019 DHS Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism (CT) and Targeted Violence.”
Dated July 14, the document, marked for official use only and law enforcement sensitive, draws on a blend of publicly available information and state and federal law enforcement intelligence. It was provided to The Nation by a source who previously worked on DHS intelligence.
“They targeted Americans like they’re Al Qaeda,” a former senior DHS intelligence officer with knowledge of the operations told The Nation. The officer, who served for years in the DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A), compared the operations to the illegal surveillance of activists during the civil rights era. “They essentially were violating people’s rights like this was the ’60s…the type of shit the Church and Pike committee[s] had to address.”
While the law generally prohibits intelligence agencies from spying on US residents, many of those protections do not apply if the individual is believed to be acting as an agent of a foreign power.
“Designating someone as foreign-sponsored can make a huge legal and practical difference in the government’s ability to pursue them,” explained Steven Aftergood, who heads the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s a crucial distinction. Once someone (or some group) is identified as an agent of a foreign power, they are subject to warrantless search and surveillance in a way that would be illegal and unconstitutional for any other US person. The whole apparatus of US intelligence can be brought to bear on someone who is considered an agent of a foreign power.”
Last week the DHS reassigned its intelligence chief after The Washington Post revealed that the agency had been compiling intelligence reports on American journalists and activists in Portland, Ore. In response to President Trump’s executive order to protect monuments and other federal property, the DHS created the Protecting American Communities Task Force, which sent DHS assets to Portland and other cities. The agency has found itself in transition under the Trump administration.“They are always pressuring I&A for political reasons. It’s been like that since the election,” the former intelligence officer said.
This weekend, Politico reported that DHS Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli loosened oversight of I&A. Cuccinelli, at I&A’s request, curtailed the requirement that the DHS’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties approve I&A’s intelligence products before distribution to law enforcement partners.
The intelligence report’s executive summary states:
In June 2020, U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) National Targeting Center (NTC) Counter Network Division (CND) compiled CBP encounter data on individuals who returned from Syria and fought with the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG, translation: PEOPLE’S PROTECTION UNITS), and had some with reported ties to a U.S.-based ANTIFA (Anti-fascist) movement. CBP concerns about and interest in these individuals stem from the types of skills and motivations that may have developed during their time overseas in foreign conflicts.
These skills were also appreciated by the US military, which cooperated with the YPG in fighting ISIS for years. Last year Trump enraged many in the US military when he green-lit a Turkish offensive against the Kurdish militia. Jim Mattis reportedly resigned as defense secretary in part because of what he considered a betrayal of our Kurdish allies.
The intelligence report describes over half a dozen people who traveled to Syria in order to fight alongside Kurdish factions—usually the YPG but also other Kurdish groups like the PKK and the Peshmerga. Some of the individuals described have denied membership in antifa but variously identified with far-left causes. The DHS appears to define antifa broadly to encompass various left-wing tendencies: “Antifa is driven by a mixed range of far-left political ideologies, including anti-capitalism, communism, socialism, and anarchism.” In two cases, evidence of antifa affiliation was limited to photos taken in front of an antifa flag. As the intelligence report notes, “ANTIFA claims no official leadership,” raising questions about whether antifa even exists in any sort of operational capacity.
The first individual mentioned in the intelligence report, Brace Belden, cohosts the popular left-wing podcast TrueAnon and fought with the YPG in 2016. The report appears to be partly drawn from a 2017 article on Belden in Rolling Stone, and describes him as “a minor criminal and drug addict who started reading Marx and Lenin in drug rehabilitation treatment and became involved in a number of political causes before deciding to fight alongside the YPG.”
The report says of an encounter between Belden and border authorities:
U.S. citizen (USC) Brace BELDEN was encountered on 08 April 2017, arriving in San Francisco, California from Frankfurt, Germany. BELDEN was returning from a six month tour of volunteering to fight with the YPG under the umbrella of the Syrian Democrat Forces (SDF) fighting ISIS in Syria as part of the ongoing Raqqa offensive starting in November 2016 to retake Raqqa from ISIS. BELDEN stated he recently learned that an open source article had been written about him and his “Anarchist” fighters.
Belden scoffed at the association. “I am not now, nor have I ever been a member of any antifa organization,” he told The Nation. “The US government has been spying on and smearing communists for 100 years, but they usually have the decency not to call a Red an anarchist.”
“There appears to be a clear connection…between ANTIFA ideology and Kurdish democratic federalism teachings and ideology,” the intelligence report states. At least one of the activists listed is described as ethnically Kurdish.
On May 31, Trump vowed to designate antifa a terrorist organization. While antifa groups have engaged in acts of property destruction, antifa has not been linked to a single killing in the United States, according to data compiled in the past 25 years by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. By contrast, the same data found that far-right extremist groups killed 329 people.
The intelligence report appears to conclude that the individuals described were not acting on behalf of a foreign group—save for one unnamed person.
“Aside from a single instance derived from open-source reporting, there does not appear to be evidence of a centralized effort to give marching orders to returning ANTIFA-affiliated USPER [US person] foreign fighters once they return to the United States.”