Why State Attorneys General Races Are The Next Frontier For Out Of State Influence

In 2011, the White House described the threat of Al Qaeda and its affiliates as the “pre-eminent security threat to our country.” By 2013, a new threat had emerged: so-called homegrown violent extremists, or H.V.E.s, a category of people who, though born in the United States, were inspired by a nondomestic ideology to commit violence. H.V.E.s, who tended to be Muslim, were not to be mistaken for domestic terrorists, who by definition were not only Americans but also driven by a domestic ideology like white supremacy. And yet the two were often conflated, and therefore “homegrowns” were also perceived as domestic terrorists: the Tsarnaev brothers, responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013; the perpetrators of the San Bernardino massacre or the mass shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando. Dylann Roof, born in South Carolina, whose homegrown racism was nurtured on neo-Nazi websites like The Daily Stormer, was not, in this context, a domestic terrorist, nor were any of his beliefs seen as indicative of “violent extremism.” His shooting spree in a church in Charleston, in which he killed nine African-Americans, was interpreted as something else. What drove him, authorities said, was hate. He was a murderer.

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This dichotomy plagued Representative Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who served as ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee. For years, Thompson pressed both the administration and fellow members of Congress to be more outspoken on domestic terrorism. “The silence was almost deafening when it came to raising any of those issues in Congress,” he says. “And the administration had this do-nothing approach. They kept telling us, well, we see that white supremacy is a problem, but there’s no way we can get ourselves involved in this because they won’t talk to us.”

It was a curious response from an administration whose “C.V.E.” agenda supposedly addressed all types of ideologically motivated violence. “I really suspect they did some polling and found out that there were certain things an African-American president couldn’t talk about,” one former adviser said. “I think they didn’t want to poke the bear.”

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This approach was most evident with Obama’s second Homeland Security chief, Jeh Johnson, who came to the department in 2013, after a three-year sojourn as general counsel to the Defense Department, where he provided legal authority for the drone-strike program. During Johnson’s tenure, Nate Snyder says, his office received calls from evangelical pastors worried about far-right recruitment in their congregations. There was also concern about reports of white supremacy in the military.

Johnson, who told me that fear of another ISIS-style attack kept him up at night, held regular round tables with imams and other members of the Islamic community. He resisted the pressure from some members of his staff, and some in Congress, like Thompson, to make similar overtures to communities concerned about antigovernment or white-supremacist groups. He thought it would be absurd to hold round tables with sovereign citizens and white supremacists. “I didn’t think that would have been a very effective use of my time to try,” he told me.

Johnson never called Dylann Roof a domestic terrorist, a phrase commonly applied to Timothy McVeigh. “If there was ever an opportunity to define white extremists as domestic terrorists, Dylann Roof was it,” Snyder says. “But people went back and forth, and it went down the same careful deliberation that happens with active shooters: Maybe it was a mental-health issue. Maybe he was ‘disturbed.’ Maybe he had a predisposition to violence.”

When I spoke to Johnson, he felt it was not his place to call Roof a terrorist. There isn’t a crime of “domestic terrorism” to charge someone with. “There is a certain type of violent extremism that is by nature more of a matter for law enforcement, and another that is about engaging communities at the local level,” he said. But the country’s chief law-enforcement official at the time, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, also didn’t call Roof a terrorist — though she did note that his mass shooting, which she was prosecuting as a hate crime, seemed to meet the definition of terrorism. “Hate crimes are the original domestic terrorism,” she said. James Comey, then director of the F.B.I., wasn’t sure. Terrorism, he stated in June 2015, was “more of a political act,” and he didn’t see the Charleston shooting as political. Even after a racist manifesto Roof penned surfaced online stating his intent to “protect the white race” by instigating a race war, Comey still wasn’t sure it met the definition. “I only operate in a legal framework,” he told HuffPost.

The refusal to name the attack as “terrorism” was, in some critics’ eyes, a crucial misstep that would have far broader implications. “I was very pleased when the Obama administration started and said, We’re not going to use the phrase ‘war on terror,’ ” says Erroll Southers, a former F.B.I. agent and now director of the Safe Communities Institute at the University of Southern California. “I think the Obama people decided, O.K., we’re not going to call it ‘terrorism,’ thinking it was a good thing. The problem was they didn’t realize how much it emboldened the other side and gave them political cover.”

In the months following Donald Trump’s inauguration, security analysts noted with increasing alarm what seemed to be a systematic erosion of the Department of Homeland Security’s analytic and operational capabilities with regard to countering violent extremism. It began with the appointment of a new national-security team. Like their counterparts now running immigration policy, the team came from the fringe of conservative politics, some of them with connections to Islamophobic think tanks and organizations like ACT for America or the Center for Security Policy, whose founder, Frank Gaffney, was Washington’s most prominent peddler of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.

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In addition to Gaffney, whose biased and statistically flawed data on the “Muslim threat” became the premise for Trump’s so-called Muslim ban, there were other ideological fellow travelers like Sebastian and Katharine Gorka, the husband-and-wife national-security team. Sebastian Gorka became a senior White House adviser, and Katharine Gorka became a senior adviser to the Department of Homeland Security. During the transition, Sebastian Gorka predicted the demise of “C.V.E.,” which he suggested was a fuzzy, politically correct approach to a problem — terrorism — that needed a better fix. Shortly afterward, Katharine Gorka, who once criticized the Obama administration for “allowing Islamists to dictate national-security policy,” made it clear, Nate Snyder recalls, that she didn’t like the phrase “countering violent extremism.” From now on, the mission would be focused on “radical Islamic terrorism,” the White House’s go-to phrase, which, as Sebastian Gorka later explained, was intended to “jettison the political correctness of the last eight years.”

A surreal scene, replicated in nearly every department and agency, soon began to play out inside the Department of Homeland Security. George Selim, a longtime national-security expert in both the Bush and Obama administrations who headed the Office of Community Partnerships, which worked with local government and civic groups on C.V.E. efforts, noted that as the months passed, “it was clear that there were fewer and fewer of the career civil servants at the table for critical policy decisions.” Some political appointees seemed to have virtually no experience with the issues they had been tapped to advise on. Katharine Gorka, as her own LinkedIn biography notes, had never held a public-sector job before joining the department, nor did she seem to have any practical experience in national security, or law enforcement, or intelligence. Another new senior Homeland Security official, the retired Navy officer Frank Wuco, had made a career of lecturing to the military about the jihadi mind-set, often while role-playing as a member of the Taliban in a Pashtun hat and kaffiyeh. “That’s who was trying to tell me he understands the threat,” an official said dryly.

By February 2017, after the Trump administration issued its first executive order trying to ban citizens of Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, several American Muslim groups decided to reject federal C.V.E. grant money they were awarded under the Obama administration out of concern over the new administration’s framing of the issue. That March, the White House froze the $10 million the previous administration had allotted for the grants, pending review. While that review was underway, the Department of Homeland Security and the F.B.I. issued a joint intelligence bulletin, dated May 10, warning that white supremacists might pose “a threat of lethal violence” over the next year. The report, which some analysts said reflected a fraction of the actual numbers, said that white supremacists “were responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks from 2000 to 2016 . . . more than any other domestic extremist movement.”

At the end of June, the Department of Homeland Security withheld grant money from several previously approved applicants whose focus was on studying extremists’ online networks and helping both white supremacists and Muslim extremists leave their movements. Though the total budget for C.V.E. was minuscule given the department’s overall grant budget, rejecting those programs nonetheless produced “a real chilling effect,” as one policy analyst recalls. Some researchers withdrew from plans to brief lawmakers on far-right extremism.

In July 2017, Selim tendered his resignation. Not long afterward, a senior official on the interagency task force running C.V.E. efforts withdrew. More departures followed. The Department of Homeland Security renamed the Office of Community Partnerships the Office of Terrorism Prevention Partnerships. At the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, analysts specifically looking at domestic terrorism and coordinating with local law enforcement were reassigned as public-affairs liaisons, Snyder says. “So no one is looking at the intelligence and connecting the dots, which is what the Department of Homeland Security was created to do.”

In the lingo of the counterterrorism world, the department’s responsibility is anything “left of boom,” meaning all the pre-emptive steps that might prevent an attack, from securing the borders to synthesizing and sharing intelligence to working with community leaders and local law enforcement to help them better identify risks. Today, at least for the federal government, Snyder says “left of boom is dead.”

William Fears was born in 1987 and spent his childhood in Jasper, Tex., a tiny and deeply segregated town about 130 miles northeast of Houston. East Texas is Klan country, and Jasper holds a notable spot in the racist history of the region as the town where, in 1998, when Fears was 10, three white men lynched a black man named James Byrd Jr., chaining him to the back of a truck and dragging him to death.

Early in his life, Fears, searching for identity, cycled through a long list of ideologies. He was 14 on Sept. 11, 2001, old enough to absorb the patriotic fervor of that moment but too young to enlist. For a year or two, he was a Michael Moore-style populist, having been “red-pilled on ‘Bowling for Columbine.’ ” Then, having spent a great deal of his spare time stoned and watching YouTube, Fears embraced the Sept. 11 “truthers” movement. As he spent more and more time on sites like Infowars, he was exposed to notions that the government, backed by the Illumi-nati, the globalists, the Freemasons — Jews, but not “the Jews” as he would later come to see them — had blown up the towers, crashed the financial markets and plunged the country into economic crisis. This led to his next great obsession: the candidacy of the G.O.P. presidential hopeful Ron Paul, a libertarian who had amassed a large grass-roots following of what The New York Times then called “iconoclastic white men.”

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But Fears eventually grew bored with Paul, just as he had grown bored with Michael Moore, and it was in this state of vague political disillusionment, and heavy drug use, that Fears kidnapped a former girlfriend in 2009 and stabbed her in the face, legs and neck before she managed to escape. In 2010, he was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Fears doesn’t like to talk much about his sojourn in the Texas state-prison system, though like many young men who went from the penitentiary to the far right, he was introduced to the basic tenets of white supremacy there. “White guys got to stick together,” he says, referring to an admitted friendship with members of the Texas branch of the Aryan Brotherhood, one of the most notoriously brutal white-supremacist gangs in the country. But he dropped those friendships after prison, he insists. “I didn’t like the whole Nazi skinhead thing with tattoos on their face and beating up minorities for no reason,” he says, implying that they represented an earlier generation: “They’re like 1.0s.”

Six years later, Fears was paroled and emerged from prison drug-free but otherwise largely the same. He was still a conspiracy theorist, though he was less obsessed with the government, his friend John Canales noticed when they reconnected that summer. “Now it was all about the Jews,” Canales says. At home in the Houston suburb of Pasadena, Fears submerged himself in what to him was the new, hyperconnected world of the internet, where every YouTube video he watched algorithmically directed him to others with increasingly far-right political agendas. He was fascinated by men like Richard Spencer, who fashioned himself as the second coming of George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party. He was also intrigued by Donald Trump, the troubadour of a new generation of angry white men, the alt-right movement — white supremacy 2.0 — with its in-jokes and symbols that were mostly lost on U.S. law enforcement.

Fears believed in the power of memes, though alt-right memes, while dripping in irony, were also, in essence, hate speech, part of a propaganda war arguably intended to spread terror just as much as any ISIS execution video. Fears, his friend Canales says, was one of the first people Canales knew to understand this and promote the memes as broadly as he could, standing on street corners and “sieg heil-ing” at passers-by or waving a swastika-laden Pepe the Frog sign reading “Free Helicopter Rides,” an allusion to the murder of political enemies, notably leftists.

In December 2016, less than six months after getting out of prison, Fears went to his first Richard Spencer event, on the campus of Texas A&M. More so-called free-speech events followed, where young white men in red MAGA hats and polo shirts descended upon college campuses or progressive enclaves in otherwise blood-red states: a clean-cut Trumpian army, marching in formation or hurling insults at activists who, outraged by their very presence, would try to fight them.

Sometimes the police would intervene, or not. Fears, for one, always felt safe with the police in Texas, though he said “they work for ZOG” — the so-called Zionist Occupied Government. “They’ll take their paycheck over the country.”

Cops would stand watch at events, sometimes on horseback, and while they might not have been ideologically aligned with the alt-right, they still tolerated them. Fears said the cops were far less forgiving of Antifa, a catchall term that has been used to describe dedicated anti-fascists and so-called anarchist extremists, as well as animal rights activists, immigration rights activists, members of the local Socialist movement, environmental protesters like those who had recently been blasted by water cannons and rubber bullets at Standing Rock, and Black Lives Matter supporters, whose protests have been met by dozens of cops in riot gear, as well as sometimes members of a paramilitary support unit. One Houston activist, who went to high school with Fears, recalls a rally where the police posed for pictures with members of the alt-right. “Very buddy-buddy,” he says.

The same essential scenario played out across the country. At a rally in Sacramento in June 2016 organized by the white-supremacist Traditionalist Worker Party, a throng of counterprotesters showed up. “The police didn’t step in really at all,” a police observer and representative of the National Lawyers Guild later told The Sacramento Bee. “They basically just let people do what they wanted to do,” the observer said. “In this case, someone made a decision just to let them fight it out.” Ten people were hospitalized, at least five for stabbing wounds and other lacerations, most of them left-wing counterprotesters, some of whom were later charged with assault. Only one white supremacist was arrested, though court records originally acquired by The Guardian mentioned at least four T.W.P.-affiliated men who came armed with knives to the rally but were not charged. “We’re looking at you as a victim,” an investigator with the California Highway Patrol reportedly assured a member of the T.W.P. after the rally.

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One domestic-terrorism expert who conducts hate-crimes training for law enforcement was baffled by the pushback she received from police officers who didn’t seem to view white-supremacist groups as a law-enforcement problem. “They’d say things like, ‘Why aren’t you calling Black Lives Matter or Antifa a hate group?’ The answer is, because they’re not hate groups! But they didn’t see it that way.”

It was in this atmosphere that Fears made his progress through various protests. He traveled to Charlottesville with a backpack of dystopian gear: goggles, gloves and a helmet, though he disguised himself as a Trump supporter in a suit. It was war. It was also fun. By the summer of 2017, the media had begun to cover more far-right events, leading more people to show up in protest, which furthered the right’s victimization narrative, which in turn led to more events and more violence, all of which was packaged into neat selling points for a movement whose actual real-life followers may have been far fewer than they appeared.

A person’s willingness to brawl was a point of pride. Some of the most ardent fighters, many of them felons, became celebrities in their own right, offered speaking slots at rallies, where their V.I.P. status earned them police protection. The Rise Above Movement, led in part by a gang member who had gone to prison for an attack, turned beat-downs into an art form, which they promoted on YouTube, drawing recruits. Nathan Damigo, a former Marine who was incarcerated for five years for armed robbery, used footage of his punching a young woman in the face during a Berkeley protest as a recruiting video for his white-nationalist organization, Identity Evropa. The Proud Boys went as far as to create an entire culture around gang-style rituals, including initiation beatings.

On Facebook, various white men were stating their intention of going to Charlottesville for what they understood would be a huge gathering of the tribes, making plans of whom to meet up with and what to bring. Fears initially advised against carrying weapons, but he suggested keeping them close by. “It all comes down to police,” he said on Facebook. “If they leave us to fight for ourselves like in Berkeley, we know to get ready for bricks to start flying.”

In private communications on the chat service Discord, posted online by the progressive watchdog Unicorn Riot, organizers of Unite the Right spent weeks discussing tactics. The F.B.I. itself was limited in its surveillance capacity (though many left-wing groups argued that this did not prevent the bureau from monitoring their activities), and in the absence of comprehensive federal scrutiny, right-wing activists trawled through left-wing websites, shared photos of leading anti-fascist and racial-justice activists and infiltrated real-life gatherings. In advance of the event, leaked chats documented potential attendees openly advising their comrades to take note of any threats of violence so they could share them with the police. Erroll Southers later remarked on the sophistication of advising their followers not to bring cellphones, and sharing information among small cells of affinity groups: “From an intelligence perspective, it was very impressive.”

Source : https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/03/magazine/FBI-charlottesville-white-nationalism-far-right.html

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