Daryl Johnson, former terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, is interviewed.
Daryl Johnson was the senior domestic terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) from August 2004 to April 2010. During his time at DHS, Johnson wrote numerous sensitive intelligence reports on domestic terrorism threats and trends. In April 2009, a report Johnson and his team wrote about right-wing extremism meant only for law enforcement distribution was leaked to the public. During the resulting controversy, the report was withdrawn by DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano. Johnson eventually left his post, he says, after DHS dissolved his team and reassigned everyone to other topics. The next year Johnson founded DT Analytics, a domestic terrorism consultancy. Johnson is also the author of Right-wing Resurgence: How a Domestic Terrorist Threat is Being Ignored, published in September 2012. Johnson spoke with Security Management about the domestic terrorism threats potentially facing the United States during the next four years, whether DHS takes those threats seriously enough, and whether the intelligence community should monitor the Web for extremism.
Since the internal report you wrote for DHS on right-wing extremism was leaked in 2009, do you believe your predictive analysis was proven correct by recent events, like the Oak Creek Sikh shooting?
I think so. It’s unfortunate. I don’t get any sort of satisfaction out of knowing that something that I wrote as a predictive piece came to fruition. I was just doing my job and basing it on the 15 years of experience looking at these types of individuals and extremists, and I saw a pattern repeating itself.
Do you expect increased right-wing extremist activity after the reelection of President Obama?
We’re definitely going to be in for more of the same. As for whether it’s going to increase, I think there are a lot of variables at play. The threat landscape has already changed from 2008. We’ve shifted more towards a far-right focus as far as domestic terrorism and extremist activity is concerned. Some of the groups will continue to experience growth, whether that translates into violence depends on what types of policies and issues come up over Obama’s second term and how the administration deals with it. For example, if there is any kind of gun control legislation proposed, that has the potential to agitate these types of groups and that would translate into increased activity and increased attacks. The abortion issue is another one, as are Supreme Court appointments and immigration-related issues. All of these things have the potential to agitate and cause an increase in activity.
Also the sheer number of extremists and supporters is concerning. While it’s true that only a small percentage of those people act violently or carry out criminal activity, the large pools of potentials should raise a red flag and cause concern. Also the violent intent of many of these groups remains. A lot of groups believe in weapon stockpiling and a lot of them do not recognize the federal firearms and explosives laws, so the ability to inflict mass violence—a mass-casualty shooting—for instance, is quite high within these groups.
Do you feel like there’s going to be an American version of the Norway terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik?
I think we are ripe for that. The conditions and capabilities certainly exist for something like that to occur. The only reason why it hasn’t occurred is that the people who are out there haven’t risen to that level where they want to kill that many people at this time.
Is one of the lessons of Norway that one person nursing his toxic ideology can use the technologies of a sophisticated society to do an incredible amount of damage?
Right, because weapons have evolved. You go back 50 years, they didn’t have the military-type weapons that we have today for sale on the open market. We’ve perfected the tradecraft of making firearms. They shoot faster. They have higher capacity magazines. All of these things are easily available while computer technologies, such as the Internet, have greatly facilitated the spread of extremist propaganda, recruitment efforts, and networking.
Outside of the policy realm, are there other variables you would keep track of to determine whether right-wing extremism could increase in severity?
If we have any type of law enforcement operation that goes amok, similar to Ruby Ridge or Waco, that could easily agitate extremists and cause more of them to embrace violence. Judicial decisions are another one. If we have the emergence of a charismatic leader, let’s say within the white supremacist movement or in the sovereign citizen movement, this could cause people to get more passionate about their cause or more desperate.
Currently, what domestic extremist movement or group poses the gravest threat to homeland security?
The white supremacist movement has been historically the one which carries out the majority of the violent acts that actually translate into killing people. The number one threat is people aligned or affiliated with white supremacy, whether it’s through their Islamophobia or their xenophobia or through their racism or anti-Semitism. The Sikh temple shooting over the summer is an example of this.
The Sovereign Citizens—a movement that doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the government and believes that the government is actually evil—certainly engage in a high-level of criminal activity, but a majority of it is considered white-collar crime. They’re very active, and they are one of the larger movements right now. But the movement back in the early to mid-90s tended to be a white, male-dominated movement and then African Americans jumped on the Sovereign-Citizen bandwagon later in that decade.
But now, since about 2008, it transcends the political spectrum. So you have people in the Occupy Movement, who are socialist-leaning leftists, using Sovereign Citizen tactics. You have people on the far-right. You have multiple ethnicities. We’ve had Arab Americans practice it. So its appeal has gotten wider. And it poses a significant issue with the judicial system as well as law enforcement when they come into contact with these people.
Since the backlash against your report occurred, you have said that DHS has ignored the threat posed by right-wing extremists and disproportionately concentrated on the threats posed by domestic jihadists. Has anything changed?
It hasn’t changed. I keep in touch with analysts and supervisors who still work there, and I have no idea why it hasn’t changed. In fact, things have gotten worse from a morale standpoint, which is sad.
How well-informed is the private sector security industry about the threat posed by the radical right?
If the private security industry is anything like the media, DHS, and Congress, they’re probably aware that it exists, but they don’t focus that much attention on it.
From a critical infrastructure standpoint, I think we’re vulnerable because from time to time, militia groups have planned to take down high-power transmission lines. We had a militia group in Battle Creek, Michigan, called the North American Militia. They talked about attacking roads, bridges, and power lines.
Some of the motivation is to cause service disruptions. When people’s power cuts out, they get angry at the utilities. Some of them believe they’re causing economic damage. Some of them want to do it because they want to embarrass the government: “You can’t protect our infrastructure” is the message; to show how we’re vulnerable. There have been a wide variety of motives behind doing it.
Is there anything to do to keep tabs on potentially violent individuals and groups without violating civil liberties and privacy rights and norms?
I think what we were doing at DHS was fully compliant. We had lawyers that oversaw our work. We had regulations and internal policies and procedures that we had to follow. Anything that we collected and kept was subject to inspection at any moment by intelligence oversight officers, the inspector general, whoever. We had a number of those inspections. We had mandatory training we had to take on a regular basis. I think there are a lot of safeguards put in place.
The one thing that’s currently being done, which I object to, is some of the civil rights offices have taken a very strict interpretation on what constitutes privacy. I think if you put things on the Internet that isn’t behind some sort of password-protected firewall, then it is public. I think the government should be able to monitor that. If you post something on a Web site, the expectation of privacy is limited because you put it there for all to see.
Would that extend to online social media outlets, such as Facebook and Twitter?
Yes. Obviously if it’s password-protected, then you should stay away from those types of sites. After the right-wing report, the Civil Rights Office at DHS stopped all monitoring of all public extremist Web sites. That’s taking a risk because nowadays before people attack things, they like to broadcast it to the world. They write manifestos. They post videos about what they’re going to do. To sit there and say that’s off-limits puts us in a vulnerable situation.
If you were the Secretary of Homeland Security, would you make any changes to its intelligence guidelines or procedures to protect the nation against domestic terrorism?
The one thing I would do is devote more resources to it. In 2008, when I was there, there were six analysts (I was one of them). In 2012, I understand that there is only one full-time analyst and another analyst devoted to this topic part-time.
As far as the new policies they implemented after the leak of the right-wing report, this G-6 review process, where they’re basically screening papers for politically sensitive phrases, I would do away with that. I thought that the review process in place before the right-wing report was written safeguarded people’s civil liberties and privacy rights.