I just finished reading Daryl Johnson’s Right-Wing Resurgence: How A Domestic Terrorism Threat Is Being Ignored, the memoir of a conservative, Mormon, pro-life, gun-owning, Republican and lifelong law enforcement employee, who became the target of a right-wing smear campaign and was forced from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Johnson is the principal author of the 2009 DHS’ memo entitled, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” The document was fairly innocuous stuff. No names or organizations are listed (in contrast to the memo on left-wing extremism released earlier that year) and Johnson’s unit, housed within the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, had no investigative authority: no wiretaps, no field agents, no subpoenas. Like all of their reports it was a response to a request for more information on a potential threat, in this case the right of violent right-wing extremism in the wake of the election of the nation’s first black president and the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. Immigration and abortion were mentioned as single issue catalysts for some violent extremists, just as environmental issues and animal rights were mentioned as animating issues for left-wing extremists in the previous month’s memo. The right-wing report also warned of the possibility of extremists targeting disenchanted veterans, returning from combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, for recruitment.
But Johnson’s report was quickly leaked to a right-wing radio talk show host, who interpreted it as evidence of the Obama administration’s surveillance of the conservative movement and its hatred for veterans. The “story” quickly spread throughout the Fox News and talk radio echo chamber and, instead of defending the work of a recognized expert and lifelong civil servant, DHS condemned the report as the work of rogue elements within the agency. Johnson notes that only the right-wing press, who were looking for anything to bash the nascent administration, really attacked the memo. But when things got a bit politically hairy, the agency immediately cowered and sought scapegoats. Johnson and his entire team ended up getting reassigned to analyze domestic extremism of the Islamic variety and, quite quickly leaving the agency entirely.Recently released reports, and works-in-progress, were suppressed. He claims that DHS currently retains just one analyst to cover all non-Islamic extremism in the United States.
Johnson’s book is a fascinating look within the complicated machinery of DHS’ bureaucracy and a pretty good overview of right-wing terrorism over the last several decades, although the prose can be clunky and it could have used some editing down from its current 331 pages of text. (A key to decipher the alphabet soup of frequently referenced bureaucratic entities would have been helpful too.) The danger to law enforcement officers seems particularly intense, as they may unknowingly enter into confrontational situations with potentially dangerous extremists while serving warrants, responding to domestic disturbances, or pulling someone over for erratic driving. (The book includes a deeply disturbing account of the murder of three Pittsburgh police officers by a right-wing extremist who feared the Obama administration was planning to take away his guns.)
Johnson also looks at the institutional biases within DHS that discourage action against, and analysis of, right-wing extremism. Many of the higher level bureaucrats come from the intelligence community, and are most familiar with international threats. Relatively few have backgrounds in law enforcement, as Johnson does, which tends to increase the chances of exposure to domestic threats. Islamic terrorist threats are scrutinized in great detail, while the pervasive threat from right-wing extremists is downplayed or ignored. (Johnson states that violent left-wing extremism has not been a real threat since the 1960s and 1970s.) And there are clearly those within DHS who feel that focusing on right-wing threats should not be a priority at all, perhaps due to ideological reasons. Clearly, someone felt strongly enough about DHS’ (accurate) warning memo about the rise of potentially right-wing extremism that they leaked it to a hardline conservative radio host. Now, almost four years later, the department has sacrificed a career civil servant and left the field.