Friday, June 10, 2005

Terror at home

Well, we can now add the New York Times editorial page to the list of people who are gradually recognizing that the Bush administration's handling of domestic terrorism is increasingly leaving Americans vulnerable to very real violence:
A draft planning document from Homeland Security obtained by Congressional Quarterly includes a survey of domestic threats notable for an excessive focus on extremist groups on the political left -- miscreants committing crimes in the name of the environment or animal rights. It specifies the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front as potentially violent activists, along with the familiar array of Islamist militant groups. Glaringly omitted are the militia fanatics, white supremacists and other violent groups at the other end of the spectrum -- antigovernment groups like Aryan Nation and anti-abortion extremists with a proven appetite for murderous violence.

... Homeland Security officials say their planning document was not intended to be inclusive and that right-wing militants will never be neglected. A scarred nation can only hope so.

The source of their concern, a Congressional Quarterly report, has actually been around a few months. I blogged about it back in March. But give the NYT credit for at least recognizing that there is a problem afoot.

A former FBI agent named Mike German, quoted in the CQ report, has been active in trying to create public awareness of the problem. I've discussed German previously, including his rather impressive field work in busting the Washington State Militia, and his later efforts in raising concerns about how the FBI handles domestic terrorism.

German recently had an excellent op-ed piece in the Washington Post explaining that one of the real problems with the way we treat domestic terrorists is by dismissing them as "isolated incidents," when in fact the underlying ideology and its spread plays a decisive role in these acts:
The fact that these individuals, after being exposed to extremist ideology, each committed violent acts might lead a reasonable person to suspect the existence of a wider conspiracy. Imagine a very smart leader of an extremist movement, one who understands the First Amendment and criminal conspiracy laws, telling his followers not to depend on specific instructions.

He might tell them to divorce themselves from the group before they commit a violent act; to act individually or in small groups so that others in the movement could avoid criminal liability. This methodology creates a win-win situation for the extremist leader -- the violent goals of the group are met without the legal consequences.

Actually, there's no need to imagine this. Extremist group leaders produce a tremendous amount of literature, including training manuals on "leaderless resistance" and lone wolf terrorism techniques. These manuals have been around for years and now they're even available online.

"Lone extremism" is not a phenomenon; it's a technique, a ruse designed to subvert the criminal justice system. McVeigh did act as a lone extremist, as the FBI says. He was trained to do it this way. But his act of lone extremism was part of an ongoing conspiracy that continues to inspire violent attacks to this day, and to close our eyes to this conspiracy is to deny reality. It's a matter of connecting the dots.

Subsequently, German led an e-mail discussion at the Post Web site in which he discussed the issue in greater detail, particularly with the helpful perspective of a longtime insider:
I think the problem is a lack of institutional knowledge about how these groups operate, and too much routine turnover in FBI Headquarters to build it. Heaquarters supervisors turn over after about only 15 months in a particular job. That's not long enough to learn about the terrorism problem- domestic or international- and develop effective strategies to counter it.

... Domestic terrorism investigations are regulated by Attorney General Guidelines meant to prevent abusive investigations into unpopular groups. The AG Guidelines required the FBI to initiate investigations of domestic groups only when there is a reasonable indication of criminality. As a criminal investigator this was my focus anyway, but FBI management often overstated the amount of evidence needed to find a "reasonable indication" of criminality and stymied investigations unnecessarily.

Domestic Terrorists are also often underestimated. Their beliefs are so unusual and abhorrent that people mistakenly believe they are stupid, which they are not. They are very organized and very dangerous. Besides, it doesn't take a genius to make a bomb. Again, there's a lack of good intelligence about what these groups are all about.

... Numbers are hard to come by because these are clandestine groups, so most of what they do is secretive. Many people in the movement have military training, and there are a lot of publicly available training materials for terrorists. Especially online. A large part of what these groups do on a day-to-day basis is to train each other, either based on their own experience or these materials. I don't believe the government needs to be spying on these groups. The FBI should be conducting well predicated, proactive criminal investigations like mine. The focus needs to be on the real criminals, not just people whose message we don't like.

... I think it's important to keep the focus on criminality rather than ideology. We all have a first amendment right to speak out, but we don't have a right to force people to listen. Terrorism, whatever the ideology, is about forcing people to listen to your message. There are plenty of legitimate ways for people in this country to get their message out, but violence- for whatever cause- is not one of them.

And I found this inquiry (and response) spot-on:
Chesapeake Beach, Md.: Freedom Fighter, Terrorist, Tree hugger, Environmentalist....yada yada...

Has the FBI a specific working definition that they use that "elevates" a potential threat into the sphere of "counter terrorism"? Or is it only when violence ensues (or is likely to ensue) that someone becomes a terrorist?

Mike German: I think you point out a real problem that clouds every discussion of terrorism. "Terrorist" is always what we call the other guy. The FBI definition of terrorism refers to the "criminal" use of violence or threat of violence, and I think that's an effective definition for the FBI because it is essentially a crime-fighting organization. But when we start calling all of our enemies "terrorists" and granting our government special powers to go after "terrorists" we are on a slippery slope(especially if the government is allowed to exercise these powers in secret).

This kind of thoughtfulness can save both lives and forestall totalitarian abuses. But someone has to be listening for that to happen.

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