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Extremists emboldened by Capitol attack pose rising threat, Homeland Security says

The Department of Homeland Security does not have information indicating a “specific, credible plot,” according to a statement from the agency. The alert issued was categorized as one warning of developing trends in terrorism, rather than a notice of an imminent attack.

By: New York Times | Washington |
January 28, 2021 10:21:45 am
US Capitol Hill violence, Capitol Hill, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Capitol hill probe, Trump supporters, US Homeland Security, World news, US news, Indian ExpressNational Guard troops wait to watch Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) walk to the Senate floor at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. (Oliver Contreras/The New York Times)

Written by Zolan Kanno-Youngs and David E. Sanger

Warning that the deadly rampage of the Capitol this month may not be an isolated episode, the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday said publicly for the first time that the United States faced a growing threat from “violent domestic extremists” emboldened by the attack.

The department’s terrorism alert did not name specific groups that might be behind any future attacks, but it made clear that their motivation would include anger over “the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives,” a clear reference to the accusations made by President Donald Trump and echoed by right-wing groups that the 2020 election was stolen.

“DHS is concerned these same drivers to violence will remain through early 2021,” the department said.

The Department of Homeland Security does not have information indicating a “specific, credible plot,” according to a statement from the agency. The alert issued was categorized as one warning of developing trends in terrorism, rather than a notice of an imminent attack.

But an intelligence official involved in drafting Wednesday’s bulletin said the decision to issue the report was driven by the department’s conclusion that President Joe Biden’s peaceful inauguration last week could create a false sense of security because “the intent to engage in violence has not gone away” among extremists angered by the outcome of the presidential election.

The warning contained in a “National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin” was a notable departure for a Department of Homeland Security accused of being reluctant during the Trump administration to publish intelligence reports or public warnings about the dangers posed by domestic extremists and white supremacist groups for fear of angering Trump, according to current and former homeland security officials.

Starting with the deadly extremist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, when Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides,” he played down any danger posed by extremist groups. And when racial justice protests erupted nationwide last year, his consistent message was that it was the so-called radical left that was to blame for the violence and destruction that had punctuated the demonstrations.

Even after the Department of Homeland Security in September 2019 singled out white supremacists as a leading domestic terrorism threat, analysts and intelligence officials said their warnings were watered down, delayed or both. Former officials in the Trump administration have even said that White House officials sought to suppress the phrase “domestic terrorism.”

Members of the Proud Boys demonstrating in Washington on Dec. 12, 2020, during a day of rallies for then President Donald Trump. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)

As recently as September, a former top intelligence official with the department, Brian Murphy, filed a whistleblower complaint accusing department leaders, including the acting secretary, Chad Wolf, and his deputy, Ken Cuccinelli, of ordering him to modify intelligence assessments to make the threat of white supremacy “appear less severe” and include information on left-wing groups to align with Trump’s messaging.

Wolf and Cuccinelli denied the accusations, and after a congressional backlash, released an annual threat assessment in October that acknowledged that violent white supremacy was the “most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.”

The intelligence official involved with the bulletin, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss its findings, added that the public warning should have been issued as early as November, when Trump was making an escalating series of false accusations about the election, and that far-right groups continued to be galvanized by such false statements.

But at the time, Trump was also seeking to dismiss department officials whom he regarded as disloyal, including Christopher Krebs, chief of its cybersecurity agency, after a committee overseeing the election declared it had been “the most secure in American history.” The agency failed to issue a warning to state and local agencies warning of specific violence aimed at the Capitol before the attack Jan. 6.

The report listed a broad range of grievances across the political spectrum, including “anger over COVID-19 restrictions, the 2020 election results, and police use of force.” And left-wing groups have not been silent: After the inauguration of Biden, some demonstrators in Portland, Oregon, shattered windows and targeted a federal building with graffiti.

But the bulletin’s specific references to the Jan. 6 attack and a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, that targeted Hispanics made clear that the most lethal current threat is from the racist extremist groups.

Until now, the closest federal law enforcement had come to that conclusion since the attack at the Capitol was in a joint bulletin issued this month by law enforcement agencies, warning that extremists aiming to start a race war “may exploit the aftermath of the Capitol breach by conducting attacks to destabilize and force a climactic conflict in the United States,” according to a copy of the bulletin obtained by The New York Times.

But that warning came in a private channel to law enforcement agencies. Terrorism warnings issued to the public like the bulletin Wednesday are rare: The most recent came a year ago during a period of tension with Iran after the U.S. military’s killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

The bulletins issued by the Department of Homeland Security, which was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, have typically identified foreign terrorist threats. Federal authorities have for years lagged on warnings about the threat of terrorism from within U.S. borders, perpetrated by American citizens.

US Capitol Hill violence, Capitol Hill, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Capitol hill probe, Trump supporters, US Homeland Security, World news, US news, Indian Express Security fencing topped with razor wire surrounds the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Jan 27, 2021. (Oliver Contreras/The New York Times)

“There’s value in soliciting the public’s assistance in identifying and alerting authorities about suspicious activity,” said Brian Harrell, a former assistant secretary for homeland security in the Trump administration. “The watchful public will always be the best ‘eyes and ears’ for law enforcement.”

Asked during a briefing about the motivation for the new terrorism bulletin, Michael Chertoff, a former secretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush, said, “In my view, it is domestic terrorism mounted by right-wing extremists and neo-Nazi groups.” He added, “We have to be candid and face what the real risk is.”

Such candor has long been an exception.

When a warning in a 2009 Department of Homeland Security report, early in the Obama administration, that military veterans returning from combat could be vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist groups or extremists prompted a backlash from conservatives, the homeland security secretary at the time, Janet Napolitano, was forced to apologize.

The report was retracted and an edited version was eventually reissued.

“It was an early lesson in how fraught dealing with these issues can be, but it turns out the report itself and the substance of the report was quite prescient,” Napolitano said in an interview. “What we saw two weeks ago is what I think we were seeing in 2009, but it has only grown and it seems to have exploded in the last four years.”

This week, Biden ordered a comprehensive assessment of the threat of domestic violent extremism. During his confirmation hearing, the president’s pick for homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, said he would empower the department’s intelligence branch, which has long struggled to distinguish its assessments from the FBI.

The department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis is responsible for gathering information on emerging threats and sharing it with state authorities to bolster coordination among federal and local law enforcement.

“The truth is what has to come out of DHS,” Chertoff said. “Not playing patty cake with political agendas.”

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