What's old is new again

A former FBI special agent says Biden's strategy to fight domestic extremism has some problematic ideas that went badly when they were tried before.

In some ways, a 32-page plan released last week by the Biden administration was extraordinary.

It was the first time the U.S. government had formally put together a comprehensive blueprint to fight homegrown extremism. It even appeared, at least on the surface, to emphasize far-right violence as the nation’s biggest terrorist threat, a notion backed by the numbers but overlooked by the government for years.

But while some saw the “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism” as a departure from the past, former FBI special agent Michael German, who went undercover while working domestic terror cases during his 16 years in federal law enforcement, saw a whole lot of what he’s seen before. Vague commitments. Muddled strategies. Federal law enforcement creeping into aspects of everyday life.

And that concerns him.

He told The Informant he believes the strategy document was an attempt to please many different interest groups rather than do the hard work necessary to reform the system.

“It doesn't look like it's a completely renewed approach,” German said. “They’re recycling a lot of old ideas that have been problematic in the past rather than recognizing there is a whole wholesale change that needs to be made in how the FBI and Justice Department approach white supremacist violence.”

German is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and has long advocated for the federal government to come up with a comprehensive strategic plan to address white supremacist violence in the U.S.

But he said the new plan leaves a lot to be desired.

One major problem he sees in the Biden strategy is the government’s continued use of ambiguous phrases like “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists.” While that does cover white supremacists, who are responsible for some of the deadliest extremist violence in recent years, it also leaves a lot of room for interpretation by agencies that have a history of targeting civil rights activists and groups.

German noted the FBI’s focus in recent years on supposed “Black Identity Extremists,” a category the bureau appears to have invented whole cloth based on just a handful of unconnected cases. He said using terms like “racially motivated violent extremists” creates a “false equivalency” with other groups that don’t engage in nearly the level of violence as white supremacist and far-right groups. The muddled terminology, he said, makes it impossible to know what kinds of cases federal law enforcement is really focused on.

German was also wary of the holistic approach the new plan attempts to take to fight extremism. Other experts in the field have called for such an approach — treating extremism like a public health problem, for instance. But German worries that could go awry.

He pointed to efforts after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that encouraged an array of public servants to report suspicious behavior within Muslim communities to law enforcement. Suddenly, problems that are very common, such as alienation, depression, and substance abuse, were being treated like signs of potential radicalization.

“You're going to have a significant number of people being reported to police who don't really pose a threat of mass violence,” German said.

German’s concerns echo those of many progressives and civil rights groups who have pushed the Justice Department for years on these issues. They want the government to focus its efforts on the major threat of white supremacist and far-right violence while simultaneously protecting their communities from being wrongly targeted by new initiatives as they often have in the past.

In January, more than 150 civil rights organizations signed a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to avoid crafting new domestic terrorism legislation. The letter cited more than 50 laws already on the books that the Justice Department could use to fight far-right terrorism. The problem, according to the civil rights coalition, was that DOJ had simply failed to focus on the real problems facing the nation.

“The failure to confront and hold accountable white nationalist violence is not a question of not having appropriate tools to employ, but a failure to use those on hand,” the letter said. “To date, DOJ has simply decided as a matter of policy and practice not to prioritize white nationalist crimes.”

German agrees with that, and he has long been on record opposing the creation of a new domestic terrorism law. The Biden plan mentioned the possibility that legislation is being looked at, but it stopped short of proposing anything concrete.

Other parts of the plan also gave German pause, such as those that mentioned “media literacy” and “digital literacy.” He doesn’t think the nation’s national security apparatus should be anywhere near those matters.

One issue, German said, is that law enforcement tends to have a right-wing bias. Another is that law enforcement agencies have been and likely continue to be infiltrated by right-wing extremists. (Dozens of retired and active military and law enforcement personnel have been arrested in connection to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol alone.)

“I don't want the government telling me what media is appropriate for me to read or believe, much less a law enforcement agency,” German said.

Finally, he said there appears to be no attempt in Biden’s strategy to fix the confusing and chaotic way federal law enforcement collects data about crimes committed by extremists.

“If a white supremacist killed somebody, the Justice Department might call that a domestic terrorism incident. They might call it a civil rights violation, hate crime. They might call it violent gang crimes,” he said. “That's one of the big problems, that the Justice Department actually characterizes them in different ways.”

That creates a situation where the federal government doesn’t really know what kind of a problem it’s dealing with or where to direct resources. Collecting the right kind of data, German said, is key. (He noted that Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, has introduced legislation to require the Department of Justice to do just that.)

“This isn’t like those other categories where violence is so rare that the government has to manufacture cases to obtain statistical accomplishments from the program,” he said. “Here they can actually just focus on the violence and produce more cases than they would know what to do with.”

Other extremism experts were more optimistic about the Biden administration’s plan.

In an opinion piece for The Boston Globe, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University, hailed the plan as a “milestone accomplishment.” She praised its holistic approach, noting that other nations such as Norway and Germany have taken similar measures to combat hate and extremism.

“The United States now joins countries across the globe in acknowledging that it isn’t possible to combat domestic violent extremism without also addressing the underlying challenges of racism and social inequity,” Miller-Idriss wrote.

German said the new strategy was at least a signal to the public that the administration wants to focus on domestic terrorism going forward. But he said it falls short of being a real blueprint for prosecutors, analysts, and agents to use in their work.

German urged the Biden administration to do far more to focus on white supremacist and far-right violence. What was outlined in those 32 pages is not nearly enough.

“I don't think there is a recognition that much of what they have been doing, and not doing, is actually problematic,” German said. “They need to change what they are doing, not just do more of it.”

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