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DHS must address the threat of white supremacists, even if Trump won’t

Homeland Security’s mission has been compromised, and so has the safety of the American people.

Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf speaks at an event at DHS headquarters in Washington, Sept. 9.Susan Walsh/Associated Press

It shouldn’t take a whistle-blower or the surreptitious release of Department of Homeland Security documents to alert the American people that homegrown white supremacists pose the most pressing terror threat to the nation.

The stated mission of the agency is to “safeguard the American people” with “honor and integrity.” Yet evidence is building that DHS’s top brass is failing on both fronts, putting the political desires of President Trump before the security of the public.

It is up to every Homeland Security official to speak up to ensure that Americans have clear, accurate, and timely threat assessments, and to act swiftly to counteract those threats — even if they don’t fit the administration’s political narrative.


Americans learned last week that “white supremacist extremists — who increasingly are networking with likeminded persons abroad — will pose the most persistent and lethal threat” to them. They learned this not from the agency but from news reports of leaked drafts of the agency’s annual homeland threat assessment.

Later drafts of that report contained softened language to describe the threat of white supremacy, according to Politico.

Then Brian Murphy, the former head of DHS’s intelligence division, said in a whistle-blower complaint that he was directed by Deputy DHS Secretary Ken Cuccinelli, a political appointee and former anti-immigrant politician in Virginia, to “modify the section on White Supremacy in a manner that made the threat appear less severe, as well as include information on the prominence of violent ‘left-wing’ groups.”

After Murphy declined, Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf echoed Cuccinelli’s concerns that language used to describe the peril white supremacists pose was too strong, according to the complaint released by the House Intelligence Committee.

Normally, such an allegation — as well as Murphy’s claim that Wolf directed him to suppress a notification about Russian disinformation efforts because it “made the President look bad” — would be met by an immediate investigation and, if found true, would result in Wolf and Cuccinelli losing their jobs.


Instead, Thursday night President Trump rewarded Wolf by sending his nomination to lead the agency to the Senate. Hours earlier, when asked about Murphy’s complaint by a reporter, Trump replied: “Is that another fake whistle-blower?”

It is clear that Wolf doesn’t take intelligence officials’ warnings about the danger of white supremacists any more seriously than Trump does. During his State of the Homeland address last Wednesday, Wolf made only one fleeting mention of white supremacy, instead focusing considerable time blaming China for the ongoing pandemic and on the “tremendous progress” of building a border wall.

Senators vetting Wolf’s nomination must demand answers regarding Murphy’s claims, and the voters will have their say regarding Trump in November.

But those working within the Department of Homeland Security must remember that their duty is to the American people.

The urgency of addressing the threat of white nationalists and other right-wing extremists is clear at a time when protests of racial injustice across the country have increasingly been countered by armed right-winged groups, often organized online.

And the threat itself hasn’t been flagged by just the nation’s intelligence community. Groups including the Center for International Studies, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Anti-Defamation League have all issued reports in the last year citing data to warn about the threat, and urging federal agencies to bolster efforts to track, investigate, and prosecute far-right domestic terrorism. According to CSIS, in 2018 and 2019 alone, attacks by right-wing groups accounted for 90 percent of terror-related fatalities in the nation — a complete contradiction of Trump’s preposterous claims that left-wing groups are the most dangerous.


DHS’s failure to address seriously the peril of white supremacist terror isn’t the result of a lack of legal tools — the agency can use its resources to focus on white supremacist terror organizations with the same urgency it has devoted to foreign terror threats for almost two decades, so long as it provides domestic targets all due constitutional protections.

What DHS lacks is the will.

“The structure and systems to share information as well as, more importantly, to prevent and intervene in the radicalization process have yet to fully be implemented and enabled by the executive branch,” said George Selim, ADL’s senior vice president of programs and a former director of DHS’s Office for Community Partnerships.

Murphy said he faced reprisals for refusing directives to downplay the danger of right-wing groups, but he should not have to stand alone. Every official at the agency has a responsibility to stand up — even to the president and those who enable him — to keep Americans safe.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.