Monday, March 28, 2005


So far, most of the evidence that the Bush administration is mishandling the domestic side of the "war on terror" has been a matter of omission, that is, what isn't being done: We haven't caught the anthrax killer. The William Krar case was swept under the national carpet. Even the recent concerns raised by the Lefkow killings raised nary an eyebrow.

There have been clearer indications that this administration is playing politics with the "war on terror," particularly in the skewing of priorities at the FBI, where investigators who specialize in right-wing extremists have been shunted to the back, and the FBI instead has announced "eco-terrorists" as the top domestic-terror threat.

There is also, of course, the clear failure of this administration to recognize the asymmetrical nature of terrorism, embarking on a costly and diversionary war in Iraq that has so far only worsened the root causes of terrorism in the Middle East (current right-wing optimism notwithstanding; we've heard rose-petal scenarios before). As I've argued before, this kind of mishandling of our response to the threat of terrorism only ensures that we'll have more of the same soon.

Now comes a report from Congressional Quarterly that makes clear just how badly the federal agencies supposedly in charge of confronting terrorism have skewed their priorities:
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not list right-wing domestic terrorists and terrorist groups on a document that appears to be an internal list of threats to the nation's security.

According to the list -- part of a draft planning document obtained by CQ Homeland Security -- between now and 2011 DHS expects to contend primarily with adversaries such as al Qaeda and other foreign entities affiliated with the Islamic Jihad movement, as well as domestic radical Islamist groups.

It also lists left-wing domestic groups, such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), as terrorist threats, but it does not mention anti-government groups, white supremacists and other radical right-wing movements, which have staged numerous terrorist attacks that have killed scores of Americans. Recent attacks on cars, businesses and property in Virginia, Oregon and California have been attributed to ELF.

DHS did not respond to repeated requests for comment or confirmation of the document's authenticity.

The report makes clear that this is, by nearly any standard, a gross misappropriation of priorities, especially when it comes to the level of actual threat represented:
Domestic terror experts were surprised the department did not include right-wing groups on their list of adversaries.

"They are still a threat, and they will continue to be a threat," said Mike German, a 16-year undercover agent for the FBI who spent most of his career infiltrating radical right-wing groups. "If for some reason the government no longer considers them a threat, I think they will regret that," said German, who left the FBI last year. "Hopefully it's an oversight."

James O. Ellis III, a senior terror researcher for the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT), said in a telephone interview Friday that whereas left-wing groups, which have been more active recently, have focused mainly on the destruction of property, right-wing groups have a much deadlier and more violent record and should be on the list. "The nature of the history of terrorism is that you will see acts in the name of [right-wing] causes in the future."

Here's a reality check for the Department of Homeland Security: After the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995, through Jan. 1, 2000, there were over 40 serious cases of domestic terrorism -- some of it realized, some of it thwarted -- committed by right-wing extremists.

These were not petty or mere property crimes. They included the bombing of the Atlanta Olympics and abortion clinics by Eric Rudolph; a plan to attack a gathering of military families in the Midwest; and a plot to blow up a California propane facility. In every instance, the planned or perpetrated act involved serious violence in which potentially many people could be killed or injured.

Since that time, the rate has declined dramatically, but the cases keep occurring with some regularity, and the lethal nature of the threat has if anything become worse. Since 2000, we're talking about an actual anthrax attack; plans to set off cyanide and sarin bombs; more planned bombings of abortion clinics; and threats against federal judges. All emanating from either lone wolves or organized extremists from the far right.

These are not torchings of SUVs and vacant condos or trashing of research laboratories, which are bad enough, and certainly a problem worth confronting on a level deserving the actual threat they pose. But the level of violence, and the lethality of the threat posed, is of another order altogether when it comes to right-wing extremists.

The CQ report does point out that eco-terrorists are in fact seemingly more active now, which may be why they are more on the radar. But no one should be fooled by the current lull in the numbers participating in far-right groups. They have always been cyclical in nature, and during downswings like the current ones, the remaining True Believers tend to become even more radicalized, and are far more likely to spin off into violence.

The report also makes clear that this apparently is only a draft version of the list of apparent threats. But if it emerges that this in fact is the DHS view of domestic terrorism, then it should be clear there is something seriously wrong with its priorities.

And then, perhaps, we should begin asking some of the uncomfortable questions that naturally arise, to wit: Does this administration's heavy rightward political tilt have any role in its failure to recognize right-wing extremists as the serious security threat that they objectively are?

It seems, after all, a perfectly logical question to ask.

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