Nation

Federal government has long ignored white supremacist threats, critics say

Hundreds of white supremacists demonstrated on the University of Virginia campus on Aug. 11.
Edu Bayer/The New York Times
Hundreds of white supremacists demonstrated on the University of Virginia campus on Aug. 11.

On June 3, 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder restarted a long-dormant domestic terrorism task force created after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. A former Ku Klux Klan leader had just murdered three people near a Jewish Community Center in a Kansas City suburb and yelled ‘‘Heil Hitler’’ as police took him into custody.

For too long, Holder said, the federal government had narrowly focused on Islamist threats and had lost sight of the ‘‘continued danger we face’’ from violent far-right extremists.

But three years later, it is unclear what, if anything the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee has done, despite expectations that its reanimation would better focus efforts throughout the Justice Department to disrupt and detect plots in a more centralized way, as was already being done by the department and FBI when it came to hunting Islamist terrorists.

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As President Donald Trump continues to suffer political backlash for his response to the deadly Charlottesville, Virginia, protests led by white supremacists, analysts who follow far-right groups say generations of neglect by multiple administrations has allowed them to proliferate and strengthen.

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‘‘The federal government has taken their eye off the ball, and it has allowed the far right to fester and grow for decades,’’ said Heidi Beirich, who leads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project and runs its Hatewatch blog. ‘‘They are a real threat that has been underestimated.’’

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the domestic terrorism task force was due to convene for a regular meeting. It never happened, and the group remained dormant for more than a decade.

The 9/11 attacks were transformative for the federal government, nowhere more so than at the Justice Department and the FBI. The agencies made counterterrorism their chief concern, pouring billions of dollars into the effort to sniff out terrorist plots before they could be executed.

The FBI’s aggressive and preventive posture meant terrorism dominated the Justice Department’s agenda, but when they talked about plots, officials were focused on those inspired by radical Islamist ideologies, not anti-government or hate groups.

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But far-right violence remained a significant issue. Since 9/11, there have been 95 deaths in the United States linked to Islamist militant violence, while 68 people have died at the hands of the far right during the same time, according to the nonpartisan think tank New America.

Just months before 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed and 19 others were injured in Charlottesville, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a joint intelligence bulletin that said white supremacists ‘‘were responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks from 2000 to 2016 . . . more than any other domestic extremist movement.’’

Federal authorities are also dealing with an emerging problem from an increasingly confrontational and sometimes violent leftist extremist group known as antifa. Homeland Security officials said members of the loosely organized group are ‘‘anti-fascist, anti-government extremists.’’ And their membership and public demonstrations have spiked in recent months in response to activities organized by violent white supremacists, such as the Charlottesville rally.

But most of the money and manpower to combat terrorism -- even under the Obama administration after Holder warned of the danger of far-right extremism -- has centered on preventing threats posed by Islamist extremists.

‘‘They never really focused on neo-Nazis and the far right,’’ said Seamus Hughes, a former lead staffer at the National Counterterrorism Center and deputy director at George Washington University’s program on extremism. ‘‘The Obama administration was very good at messaging, but if you actually looked at their programs, it was always a secondary thought.’’

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Vanita Gupta, who served as principal deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil rights division under Holder, was less critical, saying that while there were a number of efforts to confront violent extremism and white supremacy in the Obama administration, ‘‘even then, more could have been done.’’

The issue also became ensnared in the country’s increasingly partisan politics.

In 2009, for instance, a senior analyst at the Department of Homeland Security wrote a report warning that the election of a black president, the financial crisis and the stock market crash were fueling a resurgence of right-wing extremist activities. But the report was heavily criticized as an attack on conservative ideologies. After 20 conservative groups sponsored ads calling for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s dismissal, she said it was disseminated without regular review and apologized to the American Legion for the report’s warning that veterans could be targeted by militias for recruitment.

The six-person unit that tracked domestic terrorism groups was dissolved months later.

‘‘They took us off the organizational chart,’’ said Daryl Johnson, who wrote the report. ‘‘We were all reassigned to regional teams, looking at al-Qaida threats and Islamic extremism.’’

Even after deadly white supremacist violence, the label of ‘‘terrorist’’ is more rhetorical than legal. When Frazier Glenn Cross, 73, a former leader of the White Patriot Party, in 2014 shot and killed a 14-year-old Eagle Scout and his grandfather in the parking lot at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City before gunning down a woman at the Village Shalom retirement community nearby, he was charged with capital murder, three counts of attempted murder, and assault and weapons charges.

Bringing Cross up on terrorism charges was not a real option. Federal statutes are generally written to prosecute violence inspired by international terrorist groups, not domestic extremists.

The Justice Department’s National Security Division drafted legislation to change that after Holder reactivated the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee in the wake of Cross’s actions. The committee endorsed the measure, two members said, but no members of Congress were identified to sponsor it. Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, there has been no new move to resurrect the proposal.

Legal experts say the gap in the law presents a twofold problem: It perpetuates the uneven way the federal government treats terrorists based on their ideologies, and it allows violent criminals influenced by far-right ideologies to avoid the stigma of being labeled terrorists.

Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said criticism of the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee is not valid, despite its lack of work product, because it is ‘‘an internal deliberative body, so its work is not public.’’ Hornbuckle said the committee is a ‘‘forum for information-sharing among DOJ components and other federal departments and agencies.’’

Some members of Congress are also expressing concern about the government’s failure to address the rising violence coming from right-wing extremists. They, too, are having a difficult time getting answers.

For the fifth time in three years, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, and other Democratic members of the House Homeland Security Committee have asked for a hearing exclusively focused on the terror threat posed by right-wing extremists. Each time, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the chairman of the committee, has turned them down.

‘‘There is a clear increase in activity by right-wing organizations in this country,’’ said Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the committee. ‘‘We are coming up on the 12th anniversary of doing annual hearings on terrorism since 9/11, but we only hear about Muslim terrorism in the country.’’

In response to Thompson and other Democrats’ requests, McCaul sent a letter, saying no special hearing will be scheduled but that a hearing about terror threats scheduled for Sept. 12 -- held annually since 9/11 -- could serve as a forum for any questions they want to ask about groups such as the ones that held the rally in Charlottesville.

‘‘I strongly encourage Members of both parties to engage the witnesses on the dangers posed by domestic terrorists and other extremist groups,’’ McCaul wrote.

Transcripts from the last four annual 9/11 hearings show one brief mention of threats from white supremacist extremists, while more than 10 hours of testimony and questions focused on threats from Islamist militant groups.

‘‘The time to look at this is overdue,’’ Thompson said. ‘‘We need to move beyond this reluctance to look at right-wing threats in this country.’’

- Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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